Dark energy is a mysterious force that is believed to be responsible for the accelerating expansion of the universe. First detected in the late 1990s, its discovery has opened up a new era in cosmology. It challenged our understanding of the fundamental laws of physics and revolutionising our view of the universe.
Makes the universe tick
One of the most remarkable aspects of dark energy is its dominance in the cosmos. According to current estimates, it accounts for about 68% of the total energy density of the universe, with dark matter accounting for another 27% and ordinary matter making up only about 5%. Despite its overwhelming presence, we know very little about its nature.
Our Universe is constituted of expanding spacetime, which has a starting rate of expansion that is dictated by the mechanics of cosmic inflation and how that inflationary period ends. This is a significantly simplified explanation.
But that expansion rate isn’t constant once inflation does end, because the Universe is filled with all sorts of other forms of energy: radiation, matter, antimatter, neutrinos, dark matter, and a little bit of energy inherent to space itself, known as dark energy. It’s the combination of all these things — which change as the Universe expands — that determine how the expansion rate of the Universe changes as time goes on.
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An elusive mystery
One possible explanation for dark energy is the cosmological constant, a term introduced by Albert Einstein to balance his equations of general relativity. The cosmological constant postulates that empty space itself has a certain energy density that exerts a repulsive force, causing the universe to expand at an accelerating rate. However, this explanation has been challenged by observations that suggest that the energy density of dark energy is not constant, but may vary over time.
Despite intense scrutiny over the past two decades, this energy remains one of the most enigmatic and elusive phenomena in modern physics. Its discovery has challenged our understanding of the universe and has inspired a new generation of telescopes and experiments that are probing the mysteries of the cosmos with unprecedented precision. Only time will tell if we will unlock the secrets of dark energy, but the search promises to be one of the most exciting scientific endeavours of our time.
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