The Universe Is Expanding Surprisingly Fast

The universe really is expanding faster than scientists had thought, new research suggests.

Astronomers have pegged the universe’s current expansion rate — a value known as the Hubble constant, after American astronomer Edwin Hubble — at about 44.7 miles (71.9 kilometers) per second per megaparsec. (One megaparsec is about 3.26 million light-years.)

This newly derived number is consistent with a calculation that was announced last year by a different research team, which was led by Nobel laureate Adam Riess. But it’s considerably higher than the rate that was estimated by the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite mission in 2015 &mdash: about 41.6 miles (66.9 km) per second per megaparsec.

The cause of this discrepancy is unclear at the moment, scientists said. However, the different types of data these various groups analyzed may provide a clue.

To arrive at the new estimate, the research team — led by Sherry Suyu of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Germany and Frédéric Courbin of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland — studied how massive nearby galaxies warp the light streaming from distant, superbright galactic cores known as quasars. Suyu, Courbin and their colleagues used NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and Spitzer Space Telescope, as well as a number of ground-based instruments, to do this work.

“Our method is the most simple and direct way to measure the Hubble constant, as it only uses geometry and general relativity — no other assumptions,” Courbin said in a statement.

Gravitational lenses occur when the light from a more distant galaxy or quasar is warped by the gravity of a nearer object in the line of sight from Earth, as shown in this diagram.

Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA

Riess and his team analyzed Hubble observations of two different types of “cosmic yardsticks” — Type Ia supernovas (stellar explosions of consistent luminosity) and Cepheid stars, which pulse at rates that are related to their true brightness.

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