E.M. Huff, the SDSS-III team, and the South Pole Telescope team / Graphic: Zosia Rostomian
The record of baryon acoustic oscillations (white rings) in galaxy maps helps astronomers retrace the history of the expanding universe.
By Assistant managing editor
updated 4/2/2012 3:39:39 PM ET 2012-04-02T19:39:39

Dark energy, the weird force blamed for propelling the universe to expand at an accelerated speed, probably turned on between 5 billion and 7 billion years ago, scientists think.

Now astronomers have mapped thousands of galaxies from this era, and have determined the most precise distances to them yet, in an effort to get to the bottom of the dark energy mystery.

Dark energy is thought to represent about 74 percent of the universe's total mass and energy, dwarfing ordinary matter. While its existence has never been directly confirmed, the strange force remains the leading explanation for why galaxies are speeding up as they spread farther and farther apart from each other.

"Ordinary matter is only a few percent of the universe," Ariel Sanchez, a research scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, said in a statement. "The largest component of the universe is dark energy — an irreducible energy associated with space itself that is causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate."

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But the expansion of the universe hasn't always been accelerating. Theorists think that before roughly 5 billion to 7 billion years ago, the expansion of the universe was slowing, due to the inward pull of gravity. Then, around that time, the expansion stopped slowing and started speeding up from the force of dark energy. [ Images: The Big Bang & Early Universe ]

To study these changes in cosmic expansion, scientists must measure the distances between galaxies now, as well as during different epochs of the distant past. They can do this by looking at very distant galaxies whose light is only reaching us now after traveling billions of years, which can paint a picture of what the universe looked like billions of years ago.

Now, astronomers have created the most accurate map yet of galaxies in the distant universe, offering a window into the past and, possibly, into dark energy. The map comes from data collected by the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS), which is part of the third Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS-III).

"The result is phenomenal," one of the leaders of the analysis team, Will Percival of the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom, said in a statement. "We have only one-third of the data that BOSS will deliver, and that has already allowed us to measure how fast the universe was expanding 6 billion years ago — to an accuracy of 2 percent."

BOSS uses a custom designed instrument called a spectrograph on the SDSS 2.5-meter telescope at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. The project aims to observe more than a million galaxies in six years.

The new findings come from observations BOSS made of 250,000 galaxies in its first year and a half of observations. As the project continues, astronomers expect even more revealing finds.

"For the past 13 years, we've had a simple model of how dark energy works," said David Schlegel of the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, BOSS' principal investigator. "But the truth is, we only have a little bit of data, and we're just beginning to explore the times when dark energy turned on. If there are surprises lurking out there, we expect to find them."

Researchers reported the first results from BOSS on March 30 at the National Astronomy Meeting in Manchester, England.

You can follow Space.com Assistant Managing Editor Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz. Follow Space.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Photos: Month in Space: March 2012

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  1. Partners in space

    A Russian Proton rocket carrying a US Intelsat-22 satellite blasts off from Kazakhstan's Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome on March 25. Intelsat 22 is a new satellite built by Boeing Space Systems for the Intelsat Corp. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Weightless winners

    Winners of the annual Red Bull Flugtag competition experience zero-gravity conditions during a flight in a cosmonaut training plane above the Moscow region on March 1. The flight was a prize awarded to the winners of last summer's competition, which required contestants to design, build and fly home-built aircraft. (Sergei Remezov / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Hello, world

    This image of the far side of the lunar surface, with Earth peeking up from the horizon, was taken by the MoonKAM system onboard the NASA GRAIL mission's Ebb spacecraft on March 17 and released on March 23. A little more than halfway up and on the left side of the image is the crater De Forest. The image is one of a set of pictures requested by students at Emily Dickinson Elementary School in Montana as part of the MoonKAM educational program. (NASA / SRS via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Aurora from above

    The southern lights glow green in a picture taken by Dutch astronaut Andre Kuipers on board the International Space Station between Antarctica and Australia on March 10. The station's lab modules and solar panels can be seen along the upper and right edges of the image. (NASA / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Heavenly lights

    Jonina Oskarsdottir captured this picture of the northern lights on March 8 over Faskrudsfjordur, Iceland. "No words can describe the experience of the northern lights tonight," Oskarsdottir told SpaceWeather.com. She used a Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera to take the shot, with a Canon 14mm f/2.8L USM II lens set for ISO 1600 ... and a 1-second exposure. (Jonina Oskarsdottir) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Spirals in the sea

    Spectacular spirals of ice form in the sea surrounding Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula, in a picture taken by Dutch astronaut Andre Kuipers from the International Space Station on March 15. (André Kuipers / ESA/NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. One giant leap

    Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner stands at the threshold of a balloon-borne capsule just before a test jump from a height of 71,500 feet. The successful test was conducted on March 15 over Roswell, N.M., in preparation for Baumgartner's planned supersonic jump from 120,000 feet. That feat would break a 52-year-old record for the highest parachute jump. (Jay Nemeth / Red Bull via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Five-rocket fireworks

    A time-lapse photo shows the ascent of five suborbital sounding rockets from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on March 27. The launches were part of the Anomalous Transport Rocket Experiment, or ATREX, which was aimed at tracking high-altitude winds in the jet stream. The fiery display was visible along the East Coast from upstate New York and Massachusetts to North Carolina. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Infrared rainbow

    A false-color infrared image, released March 12, shows fledgling stars hidden among the gas and clouds of the Orion Nebula. The colors indicate different infrared wavelengths as detected by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and the European Space Agency's Herschel telescope. (NASA/ESA/JPL-Caltech/IRAM / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Enter the Dragon

    NASA astronauts and industry experts check out the crew accommodations in SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft. On top, from left, are NASA Crew Survival Engineering Team Lead Dustin Gohmert, NASA astronauts Tony Antonelli and Lee Archambault, and SpaceX Mission Operations Engineer Laura Crabtree. On bottom, from left, are SpaceX Thermal Engineer Brenda Hernandez and NASA astronauts Rex Walheim and Tim Kopra. The Dragon is being developed for NASA's use as a cargo carrier as well as a crew vehicle. (SpaceX) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Looking down at Luna

    This picture from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, released March 14, shows Luna 17, the Soviet lander that carried the Lunokhod 1 rover to the surface in 1970. The debarking ramps for the rover are visible extending down to the surface to the right. Many rover tracks are visible around the lander. The inset picture provides a closeup look at Luna 17. (NASA/GSFC/ASU) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. The eye of Mars

    Radially oriented slope streaks paint stripes on the sides of this Martian crater in Arabia Terra. Slope streaks are common features on steep slopes in Mars' dusty terrain, but this crater is a particularly dramatic example. The picture was taken by the HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and released on March 7. (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Eclipse in space

    The moon came between NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory satellite and the sun, seen here in extreme ultraviolet light, on Feb. 28. SDO observed the partial solar eclipse for 1 hour and 41 minutes. (NASA/GSFC/SDO) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Greetings from Robonaut

    This fisheye-lens image, provided by NASA on March 13, shows the Robonaut 2 humanoid robot during a system checkout in the Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station. Teams on the ground commanded Robonaut through a series of dexterity tests as it spelled out "Hello World" in sign language. (NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Big and small moons

    Ice-covered Enceladus, a 300-mile-wide Saturnian moon, is dwarfed by 3,200-mile-wide Titan as well as the giant planet's rings in this March 12 picture from the Cassini orbiter. Titan, Saturn's largest moon, is covered by a brownish hydrocarbon-rich haze. (NASA/JPL/SSI/J. Major) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Fruits ... in ... space!

    Dutch astronaut Andre Kuipers clowns around with some zero-gravity fruit in the International Space Station's Unity node on Feb. 3. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Ghostly nebula

    Wispy tendrils of hot dust and gas are aglow in this ultraviolet image of the Cygnus Loop Nebula, taken by NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer and released March 22. The nebula, which lies about 1,500 light-years from Earth, is a supernova remnant left over from a massive stellar explosion that occurred 5,000 to 8,000 years earlier. The Cygnus Loop extends more than three times the size of the full moon in the night sky, and is tucked next to one of the wings of the "swan" in the constellation of Cygnus. (NASA/JPL-Caltech / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Mercury in perspective

    This color-coded perspective view shows elevations in the ancient volcanic plains that lie the northern high latitudes of Mercury, as revealed by NASA's Messenger spacecraft. Purple colors are low and white is high, spanning a vertical range of about 1.4 miles (2.3 kilometers). (NASA / JHUAPL / CIW-DTM / GSFC) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Stirring sight

    After a nearly ice-free winter, Lake Erie was filled with swirls of suspended sediment and algae on March 21. This view from NASA's Terra satellite shows swirls of sediment-rich water in the lake. As the shallowest of the Great Lakes, Erie’s bottom can be stirred up by strong spring winds and the currents they generate. (Jeff Schmaltz / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Dust devil caught on camera

    A towering dust devil casts a serpentine shadow on the Martian surface in this image, acquired by the HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and released on March 7. Such whirlwinds often spin through the Martian landscape - but they're not often caught on camera. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Dubai's lights at night

    The city lights of Dubai sparkle at night in this photograph taken from the International Space Station on Feb. 22. Dubai is a popular photographic target for the space station's astronauts because of the artificial archipelagos that are located just offshore in the Persian Gulf. The palm-tree-shaped cluster of lights at bottom right is the Palm Jumeira complex, which is still under development. Isolated areas of blurred city lights are due to patchy clouds. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Celestial lanterns

    Two of the brightest planets in the night sky went through a series of conjunctions during late February and March. Jupiter is on the left and Venus is on the right in this picture, taken by Marek Nikodem of Szubin, Poland, at nightfall on March 12. "They are like two lanterns illuminating the darkness," Nikodem told SpaceWeather.com. "It's a wonderful sight." (Marek Nikodem) Back to slideshow navigation
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