The Hubble Space Telescope has shown that a mysterious form of energy first conceived by Albert Einstein, then rejected by the famous physicist as his "greatest blunder," appears to have been fueling the expansion of the universe for most of its history.
This so-called "dark energy" has been pushing the universe outward for at least 9 billion years, astronomers said on Thursday.
"This is the first time we have significant, discrete data from back then," said Adam Riess, a professor of astronomy at Johns Hopkins University and researcher at NASA's Space Telescope Science Institute.
He and several colleagues used the Hubble Telescope to observe 23 supernovae -- exploding white dwarf stars -- so distant that their light took more than half the history of the universe to reach the orbiting telescope. That means the supernovae existed when the universe was less than half its current age of approximately 13.7 billion years.
Because the physics of supernova explosions is extremely well-known, it is possible for the astronomers to gauge not just their distance, but how fast the universe was expanding at the time they went off.
The idea of dark energy was first proposed by Einstein as a means of explaining how the universe could resist collapsing under the pull of gravity. But then Edwin Hubble -- the astronomer for whom the NASA telescope is named -- demonstrated in 1929 that the universe is expanding, not a constant size. That led to the big-bang theory, and Einstein tossed his notion on science's scrap heap.
There it languished until 1998, when astronomers who were using supernova explosions to gauge the expansion of the universe made a shocking observation. Nearby supernovae were receding more quickly than expected. That could only be true if some mysterious force were causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate over time.
Cosmologists dubbed the force "dark energy," and ever since have been trying to figure out what it is.
"Dark energy makes us nervous," said Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology who was not involved in the supernova study. "It fits the data, but it's not what we really expected."