Dark energy is a hypothetical form of energy. Dark energy permeates all of the universe and has strong negative pressure. Dark energy, according to the theory of relativity, has an effect of such negative pressure, and is qualitatively similar to a force acting in opposition to gravity at large scales. Invoking such an effect is currently the most popular method for explaining recent observations that the universe appears to be expanding at an accelerating rate, as well as accounting for a significant portion of the missing mass in the universe.
Two proposed forms for dark energy are the cosmological constant, a constant energy density filling space homogeneously, and quintessence, a dynamic field whose energy density can vary in time and space. Distinguishing between the alternatives requires high-precision measurements of the expansion of the universe to understand how the speed of the expansion changes over time. The rate of expansion is parameterized by the cosmological equation of state. Measuring the equation of state of dark energy is one of the biggest efforts in observational cosmology today.
Adding a cosmological constant to the standard theory of cosmology (i.e. the FLRW metric) has led to a model for cosmology known as the Lambda-CDM model. This model agrees closely with established cosmological observations.
The term dark energy was coined by Michael Turner.
Evidence for dark energy.
During the late 1990s, observations of type Ia supernovae ("one-A") by the Supernova Cosmology Project and the High-z Supernova Search Team suggested that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. Since then, these observations have been corroborated by several independent sources. Measurements of the Cosmic microwave background, gravitational lensing, and the large scale structure of the cosmos as well as improved measurements of supernovae have been consistent with the Lambda-CDM model.
The type Ia supernovae provide the most direct evidence for dark energy. Measuring the scale factor at the time that light was emitted from an object is accomplished easily by measuring the Redshift of the receding object. Finding the distance to an object is a more difficult problem, however. It is necessary to find standard candles: objects for which the actual brightness, what astronomers call the Absolute magnitude, is known, so that it is possible to relate the observed brightness, or apparent magnitude, to the distance. Without standard candles, it is impossible to measure the redshift-distance relation of Hubble's law. Type Ia supernovae are the best known standard candles for cosmological observation because they are very bright and thus visible across billions of light years. The consistency in absolute magnitude for type Ia supernovae is explained by the favored model of an old White Dwarf star which gains mass from a companion star and grows until it reaches the precisely defined Chandrasekhar limit. At this mass, the White Dwarf is unstable to thermonuclear runaway and explodes as a type Ia supernova with a characteristic brightness. The observed brightness of the supernovae are plotted against their redshifts, and this is used to measure the expansion history of the universe. These observations indicate that the expansion of the universe is not decelerating, which would be expected for a matter-dominated universe, but rather is mysteriously accelerating. These observations are explained by postulating a kind of energy with negative pressure (see equation of state (cosmology) for a mathematical explanation): dark energy.
It should be kept in mind that alternative supernova models exist (and are indeed required to explain the recent observation of SNLS-03D3bb). Maverick gamma-ray astronomer John Middleditch speculates that a Ia/c is produced from the merger of two degenerate cores of common envelope WR stars, or of two CO white dwarfs. However, his hypothesis that SNe Ia and Ic are the same objects viewed from different orientations fails to explain the dramatic difference between the sites and hosts of the two types of SNe. SNe Ic live on bright, star forming regions and are never seen in elliptical hosts (old stellar populations), whereas SNe Ia avoid the sites of active star formation and frequently occur in elliptical hosts.
The existence of dark energy, in whatever form, is needed to reconcile the measured geometry of space with the total amount of matter in the universe. Measurements of the Cosmic microwave background (CMB), most recently by the WMAP satellite, indicate that the universe is very close to flat. For the Shape of the universe to be flat, the mass/energy density of the Universe must be equal to a certain critical density. The total amount of matter in the Universe (including baryons and Dark matter), as measured by the CMB, accounts for only about 30% of the critical density. This implies the existence of an additional form of energy to account for the remaining 70%.
The theory of large scale structure, which governs the formation of structure in the universe (stars, quasars, galaxies and galaxy clusters), also suggests that the density of matter in the universe is only 30% of the critical density.
The most recent WMAP observations are consistent with a Universe made up of 74% dark energy, 22% dark matter, and 4% ordinary matter.
Nature of dark energy.
The exact nature of this dark energy is a matter of speculation. It is known to be very homogeneous, not very dense and is not known to interact through any of the fundamental forces other than gravity. Since it is not very dense-roughly 10-29 grams per cubic centimeter-it is hard to imagine experiments to detect it in the laboratory (but see the references for a claimed detection). Dark energy can only have such a profound impact on the universe, making up 70% of all energy, because it uniformly fills otherwise empty space. The two leading models are quintessence and the cosmological constant.
Dark energy and the cosmological constant.
The simplest explanation for dark energy is that it is simply the "cost of having space": that is, a volume of space has some intrinsic, fundamental energy. This is the cosmological constant, sometimes called Lambda (hence Lambda-CDM model) after the Greek letter ?, the symbol used to mathematically represent this quantity. Since energy and mass are related byE = mc2, Einstein's theory of General relativity predicts that it will have a gravitational effect. It is sometimes called a Vacuum energy because it is the energy density of empty vacuum. In fact, most theories of Particle physics predict vacuum fluctuations that would give the vacuum exactly this sort of energy. The cosmological constant is estimated by cosmologists to be on the order of 10-29g/cm3, or about 10-120 in reduced Planck units.
The cosmological constant has negative pressure equal to its energy density and so causes the expansion of the universe to accelerate (see equation of state (cosmology)). The reason why a cosmological constant has negative pressure can be seen from classical thermodynamics. The work done by a change in volume dV is equal to -p dV, where p is the pressure. But the amount of energy in a box of vacuum energy actually increases when the volume increases (dV is positive), because the energy is equal to ?V, where ? is the energy density of the cosmological constant. Therefore, p is negative and, in fact, p = -?.
A major outstanding problem is that most quantum field theories predict a huge cosmological constant from the energy of the quantum vacuum, up to 120 orders of magnitude too large. This would need to be cancelled almost, but not exactly, by an equally large term of the opposite sign. Some supersymmetric theories require a cosmological constant that is exactly zero, which does not help. This is the cosmological constant problem, the worst problem of fine-tuning in physics: there is no known natural way to derive, even roughly, the infinitesimal cosmological constant observed in cosmology from Particle physics. Some physicists, including Steven Weinberg, think the delicate balance of quantum vacuum energy is best explained by the anthropic principle.
In spite of its problems, the cosmological constant is in many respects the most economical solution to the problem of cosmic acceleration. One number successfully explains a multitude of observations. Thus, the current standard model of cosmology, the Lambda-CDM model, includes the cosmological constant as an essential feature.
Quintessence of dark energy.
Alternatively, dark energy might arise from the particle-like excitations in some type of dynamical field, referred to as quintessence. Quintessence differs from the cosmological constant in that it can vary in space and time. In order for it not to clump and form structure like matter, it must be very light so that it has a large Compton wavelength.
No evidence of quintessence is yet available, but it has not been ruled out either. It generally predicts a slightly slower acceleration of the expansion of the universe than the cosmological constant. Some scientists think that the best evidence for quintessence would come from violations of Einstein's Equivalence principle and variation of the fundamental constants in space or time. Scalar fields are predicted by the Standard Model and string theory, but an analogous problem to the cosmological constant problem (or the problem of constructing models of cosmic inflation) occurs: renormalization theory predicts that scalar fields should acquire large masses.
The cosmic coincidence problem asks why the cosmic acceleration began when it did. If cosmic acceleration began earlier in the universe, structures such as galaxies would never have had time to form and life, at least as we know it, would never have had a chance to exist. Proponents of the anthropic principle view this as support for their arguments. However, many models of quintessence have a so-called tracker behavior, which solves this problem. In these models, the quintessence field has a density which closely tracks (but is less than) the radiation density until matter-radiation equality, which triggers quintessence to start behaving as dark energy, eventually dominating the universe. This naturally sets the low energy scale of the dark energy.
Some special cases of quintessence are phantom energy, in which the energy density of quintessence actually increases with time, and k-essence (short for kinetic quintessence) which has a non-standard form of kinetic energy. They can have unusual properties: phantom energy, for example, can cause a Big Rip.
Other ideas about dark energy.
Some theorists think that dark energy and cosmic acceleration are a failure of General relativity on very large scales, larger than superclusters. It is a tremendous extrapolation to think that our law of gravity, which works so well in the Solar System, should work without correction on the scale of the universe. Most attempts at modifying general relativity, however, have turned out to be either equivalent to theories of quintessence, or inconsistent with observations.
Other ideas for dark energy have come from string theory, brane cosmology and the Holographic Principle, but have not yet proved as compelling as quintessence and the cosmological constant.
Yet another, "radically conservative" class of proposals aims to explain the observational data by a more refined use of established theories rather than through the introduction of dark energy, focusing e.g. on the gravitational effects of density inhomogeneities (assumed negligible in the standard Friedmann-Robertson-Walker approximation and confirmed negligible by studies of the anisotropies of the Cosmic microwave background and statistics of large-scale structure) or on consequences of electroweak symmetry breaking in the early universe.
See Phenomenology - Alternative Models and Theory - Alternative Models at INFN/Torino for an actively maintained list of recent work in this rapidly evolving field.
Dark energy and the implications for the fate of the universe.
Cosmologists estimate that the acceleration began roughly 5 billion years ago. Before that, it is thought that the expansion was decelerating, due to the attractive influence of Dark matter and baryons. The density of dark matter in an expanding universe disappears more quickly than dark energy, and eventually the dark energy dominates. Specifically, when the volume of the universe doubles, the density of Dark matter is halved but the density of dark energy is nearly unchanged (it is exactly constant in the case of a cosmological constant).
If the acceleration continues indefinitely, the ultimate result will be that galaxies outside the local supercluster will move beyond the cosmic horizon: they will no longer be visible, because their relative speed becomes greater than the speed of light. This is not a violation of special relativity, and the effect cannot be used to send a signal between them. (Actually there is no way to even define "relative speed" in a curved spacetime. Relative speed and velocity can only be meaningfully defined in flat spacetime or in sufficiently small (infinitesimal) regions of curved spacetime). Rather, it prevents any communication between them and the objects pass out of contact. The Earth, the Milky Way and the Virgo supercluster, however, would remain virtually undisturbed while the rest of the universe recedes. In this scenario, the local supercluster would ultimately suffer Heat Death, just as was thought for the flat, matter-dominated universe, before measurements of cosmic acceleration.
There are some very speculative ideas about the future of the universe. One suggests that phantom energy causes divergent expansion, which would imply that the effective force of dark energy continues growing until it dominates all other forces in the universe. Under this scenario, dark energy would ultimately tear apart all gravitationally bound structures, including galaxies and solar systems, and eventually overcome the electrical and nuclear forces to tear apart atoms themselves, ending the universe in a Big Rip. On the other hand, dark energy might dissipate with time, or even become attractive. Such uncertainties leave open the possibility that gravity might yet rule the day and lead to a universe that contracts in on itself in a "Big Crunch". Some scenarios, such as the cyclic model suggest this could be the case. While these ideas are not supported by observations, they are not ruled out. Measurements of acceleration are crucial to determining the ultimate fate of the universe in big bang theory.
History of dark energy.
The cosmological constant was first proposed by Einstein as a mechanism to obtain a stable solution of the gravitational field equation that would lead to a static universe, effectively using dark energy to balance gravity. Not only was the mechanism an inelegant example of fine-tuning, it was soon realized that Einstein's static universe would actually be unstable because local inhomogeneities would ultimately lead to either the runaway expansion or contraction of the universe. The equilibrium is unstable: if the universe expands slightly, then the expansion releases vacuum energy, which causes yet more expansion. Likewise, a universe which contracts slightly will continue contracting. These sorts of disturbances are inevitable, due to the uneven distribution of matter throughout the universe. More importantly, observations made by Edwin Hubble showed that the universe appears to be expanding and not static at all. Einstein famously referred to his failure to predict the idea of a dynamic universe, in contrast to a static universe, as his greatest blunder. Following this realization, the cosmological constant was largely ignored as a historical curiosity.
Alan Guth proposed in the 1970s that a negative pressure field, similar in concept to dark energy, could drive cosmic inflation in the very early universe. Inflation postulates that some repulsive force, qualitatively similar to dark energy, resulted in an enormous and exponential expansion of the universe slightly after the Big Bang. Such expansion is an essential feature of most current models of the Big Bang. However, inflation must have occurred at a much higher energy density than the dark energy we observe today and is believed to have completely ended when the universe was just a fraction of a second old. It is unclear what relation, if any, exists between dark energy and inflation. Even after inflationary models became accepted, the cosmological constant was believed to be irrelevant to the current universe.
By 1998, the missing mass problem of Big Bang nucleosynthesis and large scale structure was established, and some cosmologists had started to speculate that there was an additional component to our universe, with properties very similar to dark energy. This suspicion was confirmed by supernova observations of accelerated expansion, Riess et al and later confirmed by Perlmutter et al, a result called the "Breakthrough of the Year" by Science Magazine in 1998. This resulted in the Lambda-CDM model, which as of 2006 is consistent with a series of increasingly rigorous cosmological observations, the latest being the 2005 Supernova Legacy Survey. First results from the SNLS reveal that the average behavior (i.e., equation of state) of dark energy behaves like Einstein's cosmological constant to a precision of 10 per cent.
Dark energy in popular culture.
In the video game Half-Life 2, a "Dark Energy Reactor" is used as means of teleportation.