Physics & Engineering

Dark energy – the next frontier?

by Thabiso Goba

Dark energy has dominated the 69th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting with a few playful murmurs of a future Nobel Prize for the next discovery. 

About 5% of the universe is made up of known atoms like protons, neutrons, and electrons and the rest of it is an unknown, invisible gas substance that is dark matter. It’s a powerful force that repels gravity, known as ‘dark energy’

Much of the universe has not yet been discovered, simply because the technology to detect dark energy does not exist yet. 

“In 1998, I and two teams measured that the universe is getting bigger and bigger. Faster and faster over time. Now we’ve known for the last 100 years that the universe is expanding but our discovery says something is pushing the universe apart. We think that something is gravity,” he said. 

“But gravity is working in reverse. It’s working in reverse because everywhere in the universe there is stuff that we call dark energy. And dark energy, it turns out, through Einstein’s theory of relativity – the way we understand gravity – tells us that the universe has energy everywhere and that energy will push the universe apart rather than pull it together,” he further explained.

In his sketch of science, Schmidt drew a stairway that is narrow at the top and spreads out until it is much wider at the bottom.  

His illustration demonstrates that the galaxies are moving further apart at an accelerated rather than constant pace. 

What are the implications of stars, classes of planets and galaxies moving further away from each other?

Kimeel Sooknunan

Kimeel Sooknunan, who recently completed his masters degree at the University of Cape Town, said these are implications that will be felt in the long term. 

“We are not sure if the expansion is time dependant. Maybe it will slow down in the end. If it doesn’t, then that would mean there would come a time when all galaxies are alone,” added Sooknunan, who will be pursuing his PhD in Astrophysics at the Imperial College London. “In such a scenario there would come a time when as a scientist you would look up into the sky and see only your galaxy.”

Sooknunan, an astrophysicist in the making, said it would be much harder to research physics in space and make new observations if the galaxies keep on drifting away from each other – which is why understanding dark energy is probably the next frontier for the current generation of astrophysicists. 

  • Thabiso Goba is a 4th year Journalism Student at the Durban University of Technology. He is currently enrolled with the South African Agency for Science and Technology as an intern journalist, writing science articles in indigenous languages. His previous work has appeared in Daily Maverick, Daily News and GroundUp. Follow him on twitter @Thabisotbee.

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