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Cosmic question mark

The Planck mission’s data put a kink in precision cosmology

2:37pm, March 21, 2014

STAR TRACK  The Gaia spacecraft (illustrated above) is collecting data on position and motion for about 1 billion stars in the galaxy. The data may help resolve controversy over the pace of the universe’s expansion.

For as long as humans have wondered about it, the universe has concealed its vital statistics — its age, its weight, its size, its composition. By the opening of the 21st century, though, experts began trumpeting a new era of precision cosmology. No longer do cosmologists argue about whether the universe is 10 billion or 20 billion years old — it was born 13.8 billion years ago. Pie charts now depict a precise recipe for the different relative amounts of matter and energy in the cosmos. And astronomers recently reached agreement over just how fast the universe is growing, settling a controversy born back in 1929 when Edwin Hubble discovered that expansion.

Except now the smooth path to a precisely described cosmos has hit a bit of a snag. A new measurement of the speed of the universe’s expansion from the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite doesn’t match the best data from previous methods (

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