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The universe has hidden its age well. The European Space Agency's Planck space telescope has scanned the skies for the Big Bang's fingerprint and discovered that the universe is about 100 million years older than thought.
The findings announced yesterday by ESA and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration peg the universe's age at 13.8 billion years. It's got about 3 percent more girth -- technically it's more matter than mysterious dark energy -- and it is expanding about 3 percent more slowly.
The scientists have gotten a good handle on the Big Bang and what happened just afterward. They produced a multicolored map showing the tiny temperature fluctuations that reveal the seeds of the universe's future structure.
"It might look a little bit like a dirty rugby ball or a piece of modern art," ESA's George Efstathiou, a Cambridge University astrophysicist, said in a news conference. "But I can assure you there are cosmologists who would have hacked our computers or maybe even given up their children to get hold of a copy of this map."
The Planck mission is a successor to NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe and the Cosmic Background Explorer, and it takes our snapshot of the early universe's afterglow to unprecedented clarity.
"It's as if we've gone from a standard television to a high-definition television," NASA astrophysics director Paul Hertz said. "New and important details have become crystal clear."
The map looked at the universe's cosmic microwave background -- that barely noticeable glow left after the Big Bang when the universe was just a cosmic baby, about 380,000 years old.
The afterglow is an imprint from when the young universe's soup of particles heated to about 4,900 degrees Fahrenheit, stretched across space during a period of expansion known as inflation, and cooled over the intervening billions of years to just a few degrees above absolute zero.
The results bolstered the theory behind inflation, which says the universe burst from subatomic size to its vast expanse in a fraction of a second just after the Big Bang that created the cosmos.
Since the light's path is affected by all the mass around it, the new radiation map also allows scientists to create a map of all the mass in the universe, scientists said.
The researchers found that they could raise the estimates of normal matter in the universe to 4.9 percent, up from 4.6 percent. The dark matter share rose to 26.8 percent, up from 24 percent. The overwhelming majority, dark energy, shrunk accordingly, from 71.4 percent to 68.3 percent.