The discovery of dark energy

distant supernovae imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope

Hubble Space Telescope images show supernovae (arrows) in three distant galaxies. [P. Garnavich (CfA)/High-z Supernova Search Team/NASA].

Einsteain in 1917

Albert Einstein in 1917.

The discovery of the mysterious entity known as dark energy stemmed from observations of Type Ia supernovae, using the Hubble Space Telescope and ground-based telescopes. These observations were made in 1997 by two teams of astronomers: the High-Z Supernova Search Team and the Supernova Cosmology Team. Type Ia supernovae are explosions of white dwarfs that have acquired fresh material from a companion star until they reach a critical mass at which a runaway nuclear detonation takes place. The extreme brilliance of the explosions (briefly exceeding that of an entire galaxy), combined with the fact that the rate at which they brighten gives a measure of their true brightness, make Type Ia supernovae highly effective standard candles for measuring the distance to remote galaxies. In addition, the redshifts of the light from the supernovae indicate the velocities of recession of the galaxies in which they occur and therefore the rate of expansion of the universe in different cosmic eras.


The two teams of astronomers were attempting to shed light on the question of whether the universe is closed or open (see cosmological model). In the former case, the density of matter would be high enough to cause the universe to eventually stop expanding and begin to collapse; in the latter case, the expansion would go on forever. In either case, the researchers expected to find that the rate of cosmic expansion was greater at greater distances, corresponding to earlier times in the universe. This would have to be the case if the only thing affecting the expansion rate were the mutual pull of gravity between all the matter that the universe contains. However, to everyone's surprise, their observations showed instead that the rate of cosmic expansion is greater today than it has been in the past. This could only mean one thing: that gravity – the mutual attraction of all matter in the universe – is not the only influence at work on a cosmic scale. Another, unexpected phenomenon, which became known as dark energy, was causing the universe to fly apart at an ever-increasing rate.


Einstein's cosmological constant

Although the 1997 observations of supernovae provided the first evidence for dark energy, the idea of something that opposed gravity on a cosmological scale was first put forward by Albert Einstein in 1917 in the form of his cosmological constant. Einstein introduced this constant into his equations of general relativity in order to force a solution in which the universe neither expanded nor contracted because the prevailing view at the time was that the universe was static. Following the discovery of the expanding universe a few years later, Einstein said that his invention of the cosmological constant was the "biggest blunder" of his life. However, the existence of dark energy has now made it clear that something akin to the cosmological constant – something that opposes gravity – is real.