The Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS), the largest component of the third Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS-III), pioneered the use of quasars to map density variations in intergalactic gas at high redshifts, tracing the structure of the young universe. BOSS charts the history of the universe's expansion in order to illuminate the nature of dark energy, and new measures of large-scale structure have yielded the most precise measurement of expansion since galaxies first formed.
he latest quasar results combine two separate analytical techniques. A new kind of analysis, led by physicist Andreu Font-Ribera of the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and his team, was published late last year. Analysis using a tested approach, but with far more data than before, has just been published by Timothée Delubac, of EPFL Switzerland and France's Centre de Saclay, and his team. The two analyses together establish the expansion rate at 68 kilometers per second per million light years at redshift 2.34, with an unprecedented accuracy of 2.2 percent.
"This means if we look back to the universe when it was less than a quarter of its present age, we'd see that a pair of galaxies separated by a million light years would be drifting apart at a velocity of 68 kilometers a second as the universe expands," says Font-Ribera, a postdoctoral fellow in Berkeley Lab's Physics Division. "The uncertainty is plus or minus only a kilometer and a half per second." Font-Ribera presented the findings at the April 2014 meeting of the American Physical Society in Savannah, GA.
BOSS employs both galaxies and distant quasars to measure baryon acoustic oscillations (BAO), a signature imprint in the way matter is distributed, resulting from conditions in the early universe. While also present in the distribution of invisible dark matter, the imprint is evident in the distribution of ordinary matter, including galaxies, quasars, and intergalactic hydrogen.
"Three years ago BOSS used 14,000 quasars to demonstrate we could make the biggest 3-D maps of the universe," says Berkeley Lab's David Schlegel, principal investigator of BOSS. "Two years ago, with 48,000 quasars, we first detected baryon acoustic oscillations in these maps. Now, with more than 150,000 quasars, we've made extremely precise measures of BAO."