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Robert P. Kirshner- Supernovae, an accelerating universe and the cosmological constant

Robert P. Kirshner- Supernovae, an accelerating universe and the cosmological constant

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 Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA
Vol. 96, pp. 4224–4227, April 1999
Perspective
Supernovae, an accelerating universe and the cosmological constant
 Robert P. Kirshner 
 Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, 60 Garden Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Observations of supernova explosions halfway back to the Big Bang give plausible evidence that the expansion of the universe hasbeen accelerating since that epoch, approximately 8 billion years ago and suggest that energy associated with the vacuum itself may be responsible for the acceleration.
For 40 years, astronomers have hoped to measure changes in theexpansion rate of the universe as a way to measure the massdensity of the universe and the geometry of space and to predictthe future of cosmic expansion. In 1998, two groups reportedplausible evidence based on supernova explosions that the ex-pansion of the universe is not slowing down, as predicted by thesimplest models, but actually accelerating. If these results areconfirmed, it will require a major change in our picture for theuniverse.Wewillbeforcedtoaddanotherconstituenttoourbestmodel for the universe, a form of vacuum energy that drives theexpansion, which makes thelarge-scale geometry Euclidean,and which contains most of theenergy density in the universe(1). This paper aims to sketchthe background to this discov-ery, to show some of the evi-dence for cosmic acceleration,and to equip an interested, butskeptical, reader with the rightkinds of questions to ask of as-trophysical colleagues. Astronomers have knownsince Hubble’s observations in1929thattheuniverseisexpand-ing(2).Thiswaspromptlyincor-porated into a dynamical pictureof the universe based on generalrelativity, which describes howthe presence of matter, or otherenergy forms in the universe,affectthecurvatureofspaceandthe expansion of the universe. Adecade before the discovery of cosmic expansion, Einstein in-troduced a ‘‘cosmological con-stant’’ into his equations, tomake the universe static, in ac-cord with the astronomical wis-dom of the day. When the astro-nomical evidence changed, he quickly abandoned the cosmolog-ical constant and much later referred to it as his ‘‘greatestblunder’’ (3). Since 1929, it has been the burning ambition of observers of the expanding universe to determine the energycontent and the curvature from astronomical measurements. In1998, we may have achieved that long-sought-after goal.The observational problem is to discover objects that can beseen at large redshifts, so the cosmological effects are largeenough to measure, and that are well enough understood so thattheirapparentbrightnesscanbetrustedtogiveareliablemeasureof their distance. The long, winding path of observational cos-mology is littered with the wreckage of past attempts to do this withgalaxies,whosepropertiesevolveovertimemuchtoorapidlyto serve as ‘‘standard candles’’ for this work. But type Ia super-novae (SN Ia) can be seen to redshift 1, and their intrinsic scatterin brightness is small enough so that the cosmological effects ontheobservedbrightnessasafunctionofredshiftcanbemeasured. At a redshift of 0.5, the difference in apparent magnitudebetweenauniversethatisflat,decelerating,andjustbarelyclosedby matter,
m
1, and a universe that is hyperbolic and empty,
m
0, is
25% in the flux of a supernova. The scatter in SNIa brightness for a single object,after correcting for the lightcurve shape (as described be-low), is only
15%, so a rela-tively small number of superno- vae can produce a significantmeasurement of the cosmology.The result is surprising evidencefor an accelerating, but geomet-rically flat, universe.
The Brightest Supernovae
Supernovae were named andclassified by the astrophysicistFritz Zwicky in the 1930s. Theyarepowerfulstellarexplosionsin which a single star becomes asbright as 10
9
stars like the sun.The modern taxonomy of super-novae (4) separates them intotwo types, type I (SN I) and typeII (SN II) depending on whetherthey show hydrogen lines in theirspectra at maximum light. Amore physical description, basedonmodelsfortheexplosionsandcircumstantialevidencebasedonthe locations where supernovaeof various types are found, at-tributes the hydrogen-free typeIa supernovae to the thermonuclear detonation of white dwarf stars and the type II (as well as SN Ib and Ic) to the core collapseofmassivestars.TheSNIaarethoughttoleavenostellarremnant whiletheSNIIandtheircousinsareresponsiblefortheformationof neutron stars and stellar-mass black holes. Despite their verydifferent origins and mechanisms, the intrinsic luminosity of bothtypesiscomparable.Thecombinedratesofsupernovaeareontheorderofafewpercenturyinagalaxylikeours.Tycho’ssupernovaof 1572, in our own Milky Way, was probably a SN Ia, while SN1987A in the Large Magellanic Cloud was a variant of the SN IIclass.Forcosmology,thekeypropertythatmakesSNIausefulisthatthey are the brightest class of supernova and have the smallestspread in intrinsic luminosity. Theoretically, a narrow range of 
PNAS is available online at www.pnas.org.
F
IG
. 1. SN 1994D, a nearby supernova imaged with the HubbleSpace Telescope.
4224
 
luminositiesforSNIamightstemfromtheuppermasslimitforthe white dwarfs that explode to form them: 1.4 solar masses is theChandrasekhar limit for electron degeneracy support of a coldmass of carbon and oxygen that comprises a white dwarf. Thougha carbon-oxygen white dwarf at the Chandrasekhar limit is stable,it may explode if a binary companion adds to its mass. When athermonuclear burning wave destroys such a star, by burningapproximately 0.5 solar mass of it to iron-peak elements, theresulting ‘‘standard bomb’’ may make a good beacon to judgecosmic distances.In the 1960s and 1970s, the measurements of supernova lightcurves were crude by modern standards because they were made with photographic plates, and it was plausible that all of theobserved variation in SN Ia luminosities came from the difficultproblem of measuring the supernova light on the background of adistantgalaxywithanonlineardetector(Fig.1).Inthatinnocenttime, imaginative theorists (for example, see refs. 5 and 6)sketchedhowsupernovaobservationsmightbeusedtodetermine whether the universe was decelerating, as would be expected if gravity’s effect had been accumulating over the time of cosmicexpansion, by looking at the redshifts and fluxes for distantsupernovae.
Search for the ‘Standard Bomb’
The advent of charge-coupled device (CCD) silicon detectorarrays made it possible to find supernovae that are far enoughawayfordecelerationtoproduceameasurabledeviationfromtheinverse square law seen by Hubble. The observational problem was to find these faint and distant supernovae near the peak of their light curves. This challenge was met by a Danish-led group(7)whoanticipatedmostofthetechniquesusedlater.Theymademonthly observations at the Danish 1.5-m telescope in Chile tocatch fresh supernova explosions and used a CCD to gather theirdata and a computer to subtract a reference image from eachnight’spicturetofindthenewevents.Theycoordinatedfollow-upobservations to get spectra (to show the events were really SN Iaand to get the redshift) and to measure the light curve of thesupernova’s rise and fall. However, in 2 years of searching,because their small telescope was slow to reach faint magnitudesand their CCD had a small field of view, they only snared onegood event, SN 1998U, which was a SN Ia at a redshift of 0.3, andthen retired from the field.The widespread application of CCDs and a diligent attentionto studying all of the bright supernovae soon made it clear thattherewererealdifferencesinintrinsicbrightnessamongSNIa.In1991 alone, the observed range in brightness, from SN 1991bg toSN 1991T, was approximately a factor of 3. Left untreated, thisscatter could wreak havoc with attempts to judge cosmic accel-eration. Determining the relation between distance and redshiftthrough a standard candle only works well when the distance canbeinferredpreciselyfromtheflux.Whilesomebravesoulsforgedahead with further attempts to find distant supernovae by ex-tendingthemethodsoftheDanestobigger,fastertelescopesandmore capable detectors provided at the U.S. National Optical Astronomy Observatories (8), a group of astronomers at theUniversity of Chile’s Cerro Cala´n observatory and their partnersat the Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory (CTIO) beganthe Cala´n
Tololo supernova search (9) to strengthen our under-standing of SN Ia as distance indicators. Although the Cala´n
Tololo search was carried out photo-graphically, this was very effective in searching wide areas of thesky for nearby supernovae. Because the astronomers could becertain that each month’s search would have a good probabilityof turning up one or more SN Ia, they were able to schedulefollow-up observations with the CTIO telescopes to obtain goodCCD observations of their discoveries. Following the clues de-rived earlier from a few objects (10), the Cala´n
Tololo measure-ments showed that, although there was a real variation in theluminosityofSNIa,itwascloselycorrelatedwiththeshapeofthesupernova’s light curve. Intrinsically luminous supernovae riseslowly and decline slowly, while their fainter siblings rise anddecline more quickly (11). More SN Ia light curves were addedto the database (12, 13) and a more sophisticated way to use allthe information in the light curve to estimate the distance, the
F
IG
. 2. High redshift supernovae observed with the Hubble SpaceTelescope.F
IG
. 3. The Hubble diagram for SN Ia. The lines show thepredictions for cosmologies with varying amounts of 
m
and
. Theobserved points all lie above the line for a universe with zero
. Thelower panel, with the slope caused by the inverse square law taken out,shows the difference between the predictions more clearly and shows why a model with
0 is favored.
Perspective: Kirshner
Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 96 (1999)
4225
 
Multicolor Light Curve Shape method (MLCS), was created (12,13). As a result of these efforts, the scatter in luminosity for SNIa was pushed downward from approximately 40% to less than15%, which makes SN Ia the best standard candles in astronomyand suitable tools for the fine discrimination needed to discrim-inate one history of the universe from another.Meanwhile, the Supernova Cosmology Project (SCP) con-tinuedtosearchforhighredshiftsupernovae.By1997,theSCPhad a preliminary result (14). Based on seven supernovaediscovered in 1994 and 1995, the Cala´n
Tololo low redshiftsample, and a variant of the luminosity-light curve relation,they concluded that the evidence favored a high matter densityuniverse,
m
0.88
0.6. They argued that the supernovadata at that point placed the strongest constraint on thepossible value of the cosmological constant, with their bestestimate being
0.05. Another group, the High-Z Supernova Team (of which I ama member) introduced a number of new developments, includ-ing custom filters, which help minimize the effect of redshifton interpreting the observed fluxes, and ways to use observa-tions in two colors to estimate the absorbing effects of inter-stellar dust on the supernova light by measuring the reddeningit produces. The High-Z team found its first supernova, SN1995K, in 1995 (15) and now has detected more than 70 events.Fig. 2 illustrates some of the high redshift supernovae discov-ered by the High-Z Team that have been observed with theHubble Space Telescope (HST). The supernovae are, ingeneral, found and studied from ground-based observatories,but the HST provides much better separation of the supernovafrom the background galaxy, which leads to more precisemeasurements of the supernova’s light curve.
Cosmic Acceleration
In 1998, both teams reported new results (15–20). As illustratedinFig.3,theHubblediagramforSNIanowextendstosufficientlyhighredshiftandhasenoughsupernovaewithsmallenougherrorbarssothattheexpectedeffectsofcosmicdecelerationshouldbedetectable. If the universe had been decelerating—–in the way it would if it contained the closure density of matter, that is, if 
m
1—then the light emitted at redshift
z
0.5 by a SN Ia wouldnot have traveled as far, compared with a situation where theuniverse had been coasting at a constant rate—characteristic of an empty universe, where
m
0. For a universe with
m
1,the flux from the distant supernova therefore would be
25%brighter. But the distant supernovae are not brighter than ex-pected in a coasting universe, they are dimmer. For this tohappen,theuniversemustbeacceleratingwhilethelightfromthesupernova is in transit to our observatories.Cosmic acceleration is not a new idea (21) and an energycomponent to the universe that might have an accelerating effect was proposed by Einstein in 1917. Since then, the cosmologicalconstant has been like a pair of your grandfather’s spatsoccasionally tried on for costume events—but these new resultssuggest that they are not just coming back into fashion, they arenow
de rigeur 
.The supernova results define an allowed region in the
m
,
plane,asshowninFig.4.Theconstraintisapproximatelydescribedby
m
constant, which gives a surprisingly tight limit ontheexpansiontime,whichforaplausibleHubbleconstantof65kmsec
1
Mpc
1
is14
1Gyr.Althoughamatter-dominateduniverse with
m
1 appears to be ruled out by the data, and on the faceof it
0 is favored by the supernova observations, there is stillaremotepossibilitythatthepresentobservationscanbeproducedin a universe where the cosmological constant is 0. However, asboth teams build up the data and improve their understanding of possible systematic effects, that faint hope for a simpler universecould be snuffed out. An interesting exercise is to combine the supernova data withmeasurements of the fluctuations in the cosmic microwave back-ground (CMB). Present-day observations suggest there is a char-acteristic angular scale to the CMB roughness around the 1
o
scalethat can be linked through robust theory to the linear scale of fluctuations at the time when the universe became transparent.Thistranslatesintoaconstrainton
m
,whichmanytheoristshave noticed is orthogonal to the supernova constraint. By com-bining the two types of measurements, it has been shown that thebest solution for the High-Z sample (shown in Fig. 5) has
m
0.3and
0.7(19).Thisisaplausiblepairofvalues.Thematterdensity has been estimated by several routes (which have nothingto do with supernovae or the CMB) to be in the vicinity of 
m
0.3, while a universe in which
m
1 gives the universe thegeometry of flat space and often is cited as a prediction of thesimplest models of inflationary cosmology. The CMB results willcontinue to improve as the results flow in from a large number of ground- and balloon-based experiments. Decisive results from theMicrowave Anisotropy Probe satellite are expected in 2002.
Problems with the SN Ruler?
It is still early days in the use of high redshift supernovae forcosmology. Could there be some problem with the use of SN Iathat has not yet come to light? Could there be some other reason, which has nothing to do with cosmology, that makes the objectsfound ataredshift
z
0.5approximately25%fainter than theSNIaweseenearby?Whilebothteamshavetriedhardtoidentifyandrule out systematic problems, both are using a slender (andcommon) database of local supernovae to correct the observedfluxes for the effects of the supernova redshift and spectral detailsas observed through fixed filters. These ‘‘k-corrections’’ conceiv-ably could produce some problems for particular supernova agesand redshifts, but because the supernovae are sampled over asignificant range of redshifts and through a variety of filters, it ishard to see exactly how this technical detail would produce the
F
IG
. 4. The
m
,
plane. Using the supernova data, a likelihoodanalysis shows the probability that any chosen pair of 
m
,
valuesfits the observations. The allowed region is large and follows thedirection of 
m
a constant.
m
1 is far from the allowedregion. Many pairs of geometrically flat solutions with
m
1are possible.
0 is not very probable in this analysis.
4226 Perspective: Kirshner
Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 96 (1999)

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