Nobel Prize in Physics Goes for Discovery of Accelerating Expansion of the Universe

Observations by three astronomers demonstrate the fate of the universe

2 min read
Nobel Prize in Physics Goes for Discovery of Accelerating Expansion of the Universe

Three astronomers from competing research teams were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics on Tuesday, honored for demonstrating that the expansion of the universe is accelerating.

Physicists have long known that the universe is expanding; it has been growing since the Big Bang, 14 billion years ago. What they didn’t know is how the universe would end: by expanding ever-outward, progressively cooling in a process called a “big rip,” or collapsing inward to a fiery death, the “big crunch.”

To determine which was the case, the rival teams independently looked at supernovae, or exploding stars, in distant galaxies, measuring their light over time to determine how quickly they were racing away from us. To do so, they needed an extremely sensitive, solid-state light sensor; that invention, called a charge-coupled device, earned two IEEE fellows the Nobel Prize in physics in 2009.

Sean Perlmutter began leading his astronomical team at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 1988, and Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess led another that began work in 1994. Both teams expected to find that the expansion of the universe was slowing down. But in 1998, they published the same striking conclusion: It was actually speeding up.

About 50 of the exploding white dwarf stars observed by the teams appeared weaker than expected, indicating that they were racing away from us faster than anticipated. Now physicists believe that accelerating expansion is driven by dark energy, which is thought to make up 70 percent of the universe but is otherwise poorly understood.

The three laureates will share the prize of $1.4 million, with half going to Perlmutter of the Supernova Cosmology Project, and half to Schmidt and Riess of the High-Z Supernova Search Team. The prizes will be handed out in Stockholm on December 10, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896. 

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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.

NASA

For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

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The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

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