Dark energy, a mysterious substance thought to be speeding up the expansion of the Universe is really there, according to a team of astronomers at the University of Portsmouth and LMU University Munich. After a two-year study led by Tommaso Giannantonio and Robert Crittenden, the scientists conclude that the likelihood of its existence stands at 99.996 per cent. Their findings are published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Over a decade ago, astronomers observing the brightness of distant supernovae realised that the expansion of the Universe appeared to be accelerating. The acceleration is attributed to the repulsive force associated with dark energy now thought to make up 73 per cent of the content of the cosmos. The researchers who made this discovery received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2011, but the existence of dark energy remains a topic of hot debate.
Many other techniques have been used to confirm the reality of dark energy but they are either indirect probes of the accelerating Universe or susceptible to their own uncertainties. Clear evidence for dark energy comes from the Integrated Sachs Wolfe effect named after Rainer Sachs and Arthur Wolfe.
The Cosmic Microwave Background, the radiation of the residual heat of the Big Bang, is seen all over the sky. In 1967 Sachs and Wolfe proposed that light from this radiation would become slightly bluer as it passed through the gravitational fields of lumps of matter, an effect known as gravitational redshift.
In 1996, Robert Crittenden and Neil Turok, now at the Perimeter Institute in Canada, took this idea to the next level, suggesting that astronomers could look for these small changes in the energy of the light, or photons, by comparing the temperature of the radiation with maps of galaxies in the local Universe.
In the absence of dark energy, or a large curvature in the Universe, there would be no correspondence between these two maps (the distant cosmic microwave background and relatively closer distribution of galaxies), but the existence of dark energy would lead to the strange, counter-intuitive effect where the cosmic microwave background photons would gain energy as they travelled through large lumps of mass.