Roman Science

Dark Energy

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Scientists have discovered that a mysterious pressure dubbed “dark energy” makes up about 68% of the total energy content of the cosmos, but so far we don’t know much more about it. The Roman Space Telescope measurements will help illuminate the dark energy puzzle. With a better understanding of dark energy, we will have a better sense of the past and future evolution of the universe.

Animation illustrating the changing rate of expansion due to dark energy

In the early 1990s, one thing was fairly certain about the expansion of the Universe. It might have enough energy density to stop its expansion and recollapse, it might have so little energy density that it would never stop expanding, but gravity was certain to slow the expansion as time went on.

Granted, the slowing had not been observed, but, theoretically, the Universe had to slow. The Universe is full of matter and the attractive force of gravity pulls all matter together. Then came 1998 and observations of very distant supernovae that showed that, a long time ago, the Universe was actually expanding more slowly than it is today. So the expansion of the Universe has not been slowing due to gravity, as everyone thought, it has been accelerating. No one expected this, no one knew how to explain it. But something was causing it.

Eventually theorists came up with three sorts of explanations.

Maybe it was a result of a long-discarded version of Einstein's theory of gravity, one that contained what was called a "cosmological constant." Maybe there was some strange kind of energy-fluid that filled space. Maybe there is something wrong with Einstein's theory of gravity and a new theory could include some kind of field that creates this cosmic acceleration.

Theorists still don't know what the correct explanation is, but they have given the solution a name...

It is called dark energy.

 dark energy

The Roman Space Telescope will contribute to our understanding of the nature of dark energy by addressing two questions:

Is cosmic acceleration caused by a new energy component or by the breakdown of General Relativity (GR) on cosmological scales?

If the cause is a new energy component, is its energy density constant in space and time, or has it evolved over the history of the universe?

Without a better understanding of dark energy, our knowledge of the past and future evolution of the universe is incomplete. Roman will tackle the dark energy problem using different yet complementary techniques.

1. Redshift / Galactic survey

The Redshift/Galactic survey will allow astronomers to see how the distribution of galaxies has changed, revealing how dark energy has evolved over cosmic time.

2. Type Ia Supernovas

An alternative way to measure dark energy is by using exploding stars called type Ia supernovas. By measuring how bright type Ia supernovas appear to be, we have a way to measure their distances.

3. Baryon Acoustic Oscillations

Sound waves from the nascent universe, called baryon acoustic oscillations (BAOs), left their imprint on the cosmos by influencing galaxy distribution.

The Roman Space Telescope will conduct different surveys in order to answer these questions. It will make an order of magnitude step forward in dark energy studies by combining these surveys and minimizing uncertainties in the measurement techniques.

High Latitude Spectroscopic Survey

The High Latitude Spectroscopic Survey will measure accurate distances and positions of a very large number of galaxies. By measuring the changes in the distribution of galaxies, the evolution of dark energy over time can be determined. The High Latitude Survey will measure the growth of large structure of the universe, testing theory of Einstein's General Relativity.

Type Ia Supernovae (SNe) Survey

Type Ia Supernovae (SNe) Survey uses type Ia SNe as "standard candles" to measure absolute distances. Patches of the sky are monitored to discover new supernovae and measure their light curves and spectra. Measuring the distance to and redshift of the SNe provides another means of measuring the evolution of dark energy over time, providing a cross-check with the high latitude surveys.

High Latitude Imaging Survey

High Latitude Imaging Survey will measure the shapes and distances of a very large number of galaxies and galaxy clusters. The shapes of very distant galaxies are distorted by the bending of light as it passes more nearby mass concentrations. These distortions are measured and used to infer the three-dimensional mass distribution in the Universe. This survey will determine both the evolution of dark energy over time as well as provide another independent measurement of the growth of large structure of the universe.

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