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What is Dark Energy?

Dark Energy Mystery Illuminated By Cosmic Lens
The galaxy cluster Abell 1689 is famous for the way it bends light in a phenomenon called gravitational lensing. A new study of the cluster is revealing secrets about how dark energy shapes the universe. Full story.
Credit: NASA, ESA, E. Jullo (JPL/LAM), P. Natarajan (Yale) and J-P. Kneib (LAM)

A mysterious quantity known as dark energy makes up nearly three-fourths of the universe, yet scientists are unsure not only what it is but how it operates. How, then, can they know this strange source exists?

The expanding universe

In 1929, American astronomer Edwin Hubble studied exploding stars known as supernovae to determine that the universe is expanding. Since then, scientists have sought to determine just how fast. It seemed obvious that gravity, the force which draws everything together, would put the brakes on the spreading cosmos, so the question many asked was, just how much was the expansion slowing?

Mysterious Dark Energy Confirmed By New Method
These galaxy clusters are representative of more than 80 clusters that were used to track the effects of dark energy on these massive objects over time. Most of the matter in galaxy clusters is in the form of very hot gas, which emits copious amounts of X-rays.
Credit: NASA/CXC/SAO/A.Vikhlinin et al.

In the 1990s, two independent teams of astrophysicists again turned their eyes to distant supernovae to calculate the deceleration. To their surprise, they found that the expansion of the universe wasn't slowing down, it was speeding up! Something must be counteracting gravity, something which the scientists dubbed "dark energy."

Calculating the energy needed to overcome gravity, scientists determined that dark energy makes up roughly 68 percent of the universe. Dark matter makes up another 27 percent, leaving the "normal" matter that we are familiar with to make up less than 5 percent of the cosmos around us.

Quintessence

Knowing how dark energy affects the spreading universe only tells scientists so much. The properties of the unknown quantity are still up for grabs. Recent observations have indicated that dark energy has behaved constantly over the universe's history, which provides some insight into the unseen material.

One possible solution for dark energy is that the universe is filled with a changing energy field, known as "quintessence." Another is that scientists do not correctly understand how gravity works.

The leading theory, however, considers dark energy a property of space. Albert Einstein was the first to understand that space was not simply empty. He also understood that more space could continue to come into existence. In his theory of general relativity, Einstein included a cosmological constant to account for the stationary universe scientists thought existed. After Hubble announced the expanding universe, Einstein called his constant his "biggest blunder."

But Einstein's blunder may be the best fit for dark energy. Predicting that empty space can have its own energy, the constant indicates that as more space emerges, more energy would be added to the universe, increasing its expansion.

Although the cosmological constant matches up with observations, scientists still aren't certain just why it fits.

Dark energy versus dark matter

Dark energy makes up most of the universe, but dark matter also covers a sizeable chunk. Comprising nearly 27 percent of the universe, and 80 percent of the matter, dark matter also plays a dominant role.

Like dark energy, dark matter continues to confound scientists. While dark energy is a force that accounts for the expanding universe, dark matter explains how groups of objects function together.

In the 1950s, scientists studying other galaxies expected gravity to cause the centers to rotate faster than the outer edges, based on the distribution of the objects inside of them. To their surprise, both regions rotated at the same rate, indicating that the spiral galaxies contained significantly more mass than they appeared to. Studies of gas inside elliptical galaxies and of clusters of galaxies revealed that this hidden matter was spread throughout the universe.

Scientists have a number of potential candidates for dark matter, ranging to incredibly dim objects to strange particles. But whatever the source of both dark matter and dark energy, it is clear that the universe is affected by things that scientists can't conventionally observe.

— Nola Taylor Redd, SPACE.com Contributor

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