12 December 2003
ESA's X-ray observatory, XMM-Newton, has returned tantalising
new data about the nature of the Universe. In a survey of distant
clusters of galaxies, XMM-Newton has found puzzling differences
between today's clusters of galaxies and those present in the Universe
around seven thousand million years ago. Some scientists claim
that this can be interpreted to mean that the 'dark energy' which
most astronomers now believe dominates the Universe simply does
Observations of eight distant clusters of galaxies, the furthest of which is around 10 thousand million light years away, were studied by an international group of astronomers led by David Lumb of ESA's Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in the Netherlands. They compared these clusters to those found in the nearby Universe. This study was conducted as part of the larger XMM-Newton Omega Project, which investigates the density of matter in the Universe under the lead of Jim Bartlett of the College de France.
Clusters of galaxies are prodigious emitters of X-rays because they contain a large quantity of high-temperature gas. This gas surrounds galaxies in the same way as steam surrounds people in a sauna. By measuring the quantity and energy of X-rays from a cluster, astronomers can work out both the temperature of the cluster gas and also the mass of the cluster.
Theoretically, in a Universe where the density of matter is high, clusters of galaxies would continue to grow with time and so, on average, should contain more mass now than in the past.
Most astronomers believe that we live in a low-density Universe in which a mysterious substance known as 'dark energy' accounts for 70% of the content of the cosmos and, therefore, pervades everything. In this scenario, clusters of galaxies should stop growing early in the history of the Universe and look virtually indistinguishable from those of today.
In a paper soon to be published by the European journal Astronomy
and Astrophysics, astronomers from the XMM-Newton Omega Project
present results showing that clusters of galaxies in the distant
Universe are not like those of today. They seem to give out more
X-rays than today. So clearly, clusters of galaxies have changed
their appearance with time.
In an accompanying paper, Alain Blanchard of the Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de l'Observatoire Midi-Pyrénées and his team use the results to calculate how the abundance of galaxy clusters changes with time. Blanchard says, "There were fewer galaxy clusters in the past."
Such a result indicates that the Universe must be a high-density environment, in clear contradiction to the 'concordance model,' which postulates a Universe with up to 70% dark energy and a very low density of matter. Blanchard knows that this conclusion will be highly controversial, saying, "To account for these results you have to have a lot of matter in the Universe and that leaves little room for dark energy."
To reconcile the new XMM-Newton observations with the concordance models, astronomers would have to admit a fundamental gap in their knowledge about the behaviour of the clusters and, possibly, of the galaxies within them. For instance, galaxies in the faraway clusters would have to be injecting more energy into their surrounding gas than is currently understood. That process should then gradually taper off as the cluster and the galaxies within it grow older.
No matter which way the results are interpreted, XMM-Newton has given astronomers a new insight into the Universe and a new mystery to puzzle over. As for the possibility that the XMM-Newton results are simply wrong, they are in the process of being confirmed by other X-ray observations. Should these return the same answer, we might have to rethink our understanding of the Universe.
Note to editors:
The two papers, The XMM-Newton Omega Project: I. The X-ray Luminosity-Temperature Relationship at z>0.4 by D.H. Lumb et al. and The XMM-Newton Omega Project: II. Cosmological implications from the high redshift L-T relation of X-ray clusters by S.C. Vauclair, A. Blanchard et al. will be published shortly in Astronomy and Astrophysics.
The content of the Universe is widely thought to consist of three types of substance: normal matter, dark matter and dark energy. Normal matter consists of the atoms that make up stars, planets, human beings and every other visible object in the Universe. As humbling as it sounds, normal matter almost certainly accounts for a small proportion of the Universe, somewhere between 1% and 10%.
The more astronomers observed the Universe, the more matter they needed to find to explain it all. This matter could not be made of normal atoms, however, otherwise there would be more stars and galaxies to be seen. Instead, they coined the term dark matter for this peculiar substance precisely because it escapes our detection. At the same time, physicists trying to further the understanding of the forces of nature were starting to believe that new and exotic particles of matter must be abundant in the Universe. These would hardly ever interact with normal matter and many now believe that these particles are the dark matter. At the present time, even though many experiments are underway to detect dark matter particles, none have been successful. Nevertheless, astronomers still believe that somewhere between 30% and 99% of the Universe may consist of dark matter.
Dark energy is the latest addition to the contents of the Universe. Originally, Albert Einstein introduced the idea of an all-pervading 'cosmic energy' before he knew that the Universe is expanding. The expanding Universe did not need a 'cosmological constant' as Einstein had called his energy. However, in the 1990s observations of exploding stars in the distant Universe suggested that the Universe was not just expanding but accelerating as well. The only way to explain this was to reintroduce Einstein's cosmic energy in a slightly altered form, called dark energy. No one knows what the dark energy might be.
In the currently popular 'concordance model' of the Universe, 70% of the cosmos is thought to be dark energy, 25% dark matter and 5% normal matter.
XMM-Newton can detect more X-ray sources than any previous satellite and is helping to solve many cosmic mysteries of the violent Universe, from black holes to the formation of galaxies. It was launched on 10 December 1999, using an Ariane-5 rocket from French Guiana. It is expected to return data for a decade. XMM-Newton's high-tech design uses over 170 wafer-thin cylindrical mirrors spread over three telescopes. Its orbit takes it almost a third of the way to the Moon, so that astronomers can enjoy long, uninterrupted views of celestial objects.