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Universe's 'Baby' Picture Tells More Than Its Age - 2003-02-18

Astronomers say they have the best picture ever of when the universe was born, and how it will die.

Astronomers sent a satellite a million miles from Earth to measure the leftover radiation from the universe's firey start. Space science official Ed Weiler, from the American space agency, NASA, told reporters the results are in, and they're impressive.

"These results are truly profound, and give us insight into the most fundamental questions that humans have ever posed. How did the universe begin and evolve? How did the first stars form, and begin to light the universe, in other words when did the lights come on?" Mr. Weiler said.

The new data shows the universe was born 13.7 billion years ago. The lights came on only 200 million years later, much sooner than they had thought.

And their data says the universe will die not with a bang, but a whimper. It will keep on expanding, forever, spreading matter ever thinner.

The astronomers say they also have a better idea of composition of the universe - sort of. They say it's about four percent atoms. That's the stuff that you and I and everything we know is made of. But the rest is more mysterious.

Lead researcher Charles Bennet says it's about one-quarter what astronomers call "dark matter" Scientists don't know exactly what it is, but they know its properties, Mr. Bennet says. "A whopping 73 percent of the universe is in the form of an exotic dark energy. We also don't know what the dark energy is, but we have a couple of candidates," Mr. Bennet said.

This recipe agrees with what some astronomers had predicted. But it surprised physicist John Bahcall, of the Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he had been skeptical of this strange model of the universe. But now, he says, he's a believer.

"This very implausible, strange universe, that has been constructed by astronomers, has been confirmed in exquisite detail," Mr. Bahcall said.

Princeton University's John Spergel, who was part of the project, says the new data marks a turning point in astronomy. "We've answered these old questions - how old is the universe, how many atoms are there in the universe, how much matter there is in the universe. These are the questions that have driven the field for the past couple decades. We're now starting the process of addressing new questions. We now know when the first stars formed, but how did they form?" Mr. Spergel said.

That question, and others, should keep astronomers busy for years to come.