More than 90 years ago, astronomer Edwin Hubble observed the first hint of the rate at which the universe expands, called the Hubble constant.
Almost immediately, astronomers began arguing about the actual value of this constant, and over time, realized that there was a discrepancy in this number between early universe observations and late universe observations.
Early in the universe’s existence, light moved through plasma—there were no stars yet—and from oscillations similar to sound waves created by this, scientists deduced that the Hubble constant was about 67. This means the universe expands about 67 kilometers per second faster every 3.26 million light-years.
But this observation differs when scientists look at the universe’s later life, after stars were born and galaxies formed. The gravity of these objects causes what’s called gravitational lensing, which distorts light between a distant source and its observer.
Other phenomena in this late universe include extreme explosions and events related to the end of a star’s life. Based on these later life observations, scientists calculated a different value, around 74. This discrepancy is called the Hubble tension.
Now, an international team including a University of Michigan physicist has analyzed a database of more than 1,000 supernovae explosions, supporting the idea that the Hubble constant might not actually be constant.
Instead, it may change based on the expansion of the universe, growing as the universe expands. This explanation likely requires new physics to explain the increasing rate of expansion, such as a modified version of Einstein’s gravity.
The team’s results are published in The Astrophysical Journal.
“The point is that there seems to be a tension between the larger values for late universe observations and lower values for early universe observation,” said Enrico Rinaldi, a research fellow in the U-M Department of Physics. “The question we asked in this paper is: What if the Hubble constant is not constant? What if it actually changes?”
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Study abstract: On the Hubble Constant Tension in the See Ia Pantheon Sample (full text)