Hubble measurements suggest disparity in Hubble constant calculations is not a fluke

April 25, 2019

Hubble's measurements of today's expansion rate do not match the rate that was expected based on how the Universe appeared shortly after the Big Bang over 13 billion years ago. Using new data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have significantly lowered the possibility that this discrepancy is a fluke.

Using new observations from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, researchers have improved the foundations of the cosmic distance ladder, which is used to calculate accurate distances to nearby galaxies. This was done by observing pulsating stars called Cepheid variables in a neighbouring satellite galaxy known as the Large Magellanic Cloud, now calculated to be 162,000 light-years away. When defining the distances to galaxies that are further and further away, these Cepheid variables are used as milepost markers. Researchers use these measurements to determine how fast the Universe is expanding over time, a value known as the Hubble constant.

Before Hubble was launched in 1990, estimates of the Hubble constant varied by a factor of two. In the late 1990s the Hubble Space Telescope Key Project on the Extragalactic Distance Scale refined the value of the Hubble constant to within 10 percent, accomplishing one of the telescope's key goals. In 2016, astronomers using Hubble discovered that the Universe is expanding between five and nine percent faster than previously calculated by refining the measurement of the Hubble constant and further reducing the uncertainty to only 2.4 percent. In 2017, an independent measurement supported these results. This latest research has reduced the uncertainty in their Hubble constant value to an unprecedented 1.9 percent.

This research also suggests that the likelihood that this discrepancy between measurements of today's expansion rate of the Universe and the expected value based on the early Universe's expansion is a fluke is just 1 in 100,000, a significant improvement from a previous estimate last year of 1 in 3,000.

"The Hubble tension between the early and late Universe may be the most exciting development in cosmology in decades," said lead researcher and Nobel Laureate Adam Riess of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) and Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, USA. "This mismatch has been growing and has now reached a point that is really impossible to dismiss as a fluke. This disparity could not plausibly occur by chance."

As the team's measurements have become more precise, their calculation of the Hubble constant has remained inconsistent with the expected value derived from observations of the early Universe's expansion made by the European Space Agency's Planck satellite. These measurements map a remnant afterglow from the Big Bang known as the Cosmic Microwave Background, which help scientists to predict how the early Universe would likely have evolved into the expansion rate astronomers can measure today.

The new estimate of the Hubble constant is 74.03 kilometres per second per megaparsec [1]. The number indicates that the Universe is expanding at a rate about 9 percent faster than that implied by Planck's observations of the early Universe, which give a value for the Hubble constant of 67.4 kilometres per second per megaparsec.

To reach this conclusion, Riess and his team analysed the light from 70 Cepheid variables in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Because these stars brighten and dim at predictable rates, and the periods of these variations give us their luminosity and hence distance, astronomers use them as cosmic mileposts. Riess's team used an efficient observing technique called Drift And Shift (DASH) using Hubble as a "point-and-shoot" camera to snap quick images of the bright stars. This avoids the more time-consuming step of anchoring the telescope with guide stars to observe each star. The results were combined with observations made by the Araucaria Project, a collaboration between astronomers from institutions in Europe, Chile, and the United States, to measure the distance to the Large Magellanic Cloud by observing the dimming of light as one star passes in front of its partner in a binary-star system.

Because cosmological models suggest that observed values of the expansion of the Universe should be the same as those determined from the Cosmic Microwave Background, new physics may be needed to explain the disparity. "Previously, theorists would say to me, 'it can't be. It's going to break everything.' Now they are saying, 'we actually could do this,'" Riess said.

Various scenarios have been proposed to explain the discrepancy, but there is yet to be a conclusive answer. An invisible form of matter called dark matter may interact more strongly with normal matter than astronomers previously thought. Or perhaps dark energy, an unknown form of energy that pervades space, is responsible for accelerating the expansion of the Universe.

Although Riess does not have an answer to this perplexing disparity, he and his team intend to continue using Hubble to reduce the uncertainty in their measure of the Hubble constant, which they hope to decrease to 1 percent.
The team's results have been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.


[1] This means that for every 3.3 million light-years further away a galaxy is from us, it appears to be moving about 74 kilometres per second faster, as a result of the expansion of the Universe.

More information

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between ESA and NASA.

The team of astronomers in this study consists of Adam G. Riess (Johns Hopkins University, USA; STScI, USA), Stefano Casertano (STScI, USA), Wenlong Yuan (Johns Hopkins University, USA), Lucas M. Macri (Texas A&M University, USA), Dan Scolnic (Duke University, USA)


Adam Riess
Space Telescope Science Institute
Baltimore, USA
Tel: +1 410 338 6707

Bethany Downer
ESA/Hubble, Public Information Officer
Garching, Germany

ESA/Hubble Information Centre

Related Big Bang Articles from Brightsurf:

Do big tadpoles turn into big frogs? It's complicated, study finds
University of Arizona researchers studied the evolution of the body sizes of frogs and their tadpoles.

A 'bang' in LIGO and Virgo detectors signals most massive gravitational-wave source yet
Researchers have detected a signal from what may be the most massive black hole merger yet observed in gravitational waves.

Analysis: Health sector, big pharma spent big on lobbying for COVID-19 funding
To date, Congress has authorized roughly $3 trillion in COVID-19 relief assistance -- the largest relief package in history.

Unequal neutron-star mergers create unique "bang" in simulations
In a series of simulations, an international team of researchers determined that some neutron star collisions not only produce gravitational waves, but also electromagnetic radiation that should be detectable on Earth.

Supermassive black holes shortly after the Big Bang: How to seed them
They are billions of times larger than our Sun: how is it possible that supermassive black holes were already present when the Universe was 'just' 800 million years old?

Big data could yield big discoveries in archaeology, Brown scholar says
Parker VanValkenburgh, an assistant professor of anthropology, curated a journal issue that explores the opportunities and challenges big data could bring to the field of archaeology.

APS tip sheet: modeling the matter after big bang expansion
Matter's fragmentation after the big bang.

Giving cryptocurrency users more bang for their buck
A new cryptocurrency-routing scheme co-invented by MIT researchers can boost the efficiency -- and, ultimately, profits -- of certain networks designed to speed up notoriously slow blockchain transactions.

The core of massive dying galaxies already formed 1.5 billion years after the Big Bang
The most distant dying galaxy discovered so far, more massive than our Milky Way -- with more than a trillion stars -- has revealed that the 'cores' of these systems had formed already 1.5 billion years after the Big Bang, about 1 billion years earlier than previous measurements revealed.

The 'cores' of massive galaxies had already formed 1.5 billion years after the big bang
A distant galaxy more massive than our Milky Way -- with more than a trillion stars - has revealed that the 'cores' of massive galaxies in the Universe had formed already 1.5 billion years after the Big Bang, about 1 billion years earlier than previous measurements revealed.

Read More: Big Bang News and Big Bang Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to