Observations of eight distant clusters of galaxies, the furthest of which is around 10 thousand million light years away, were studied by an international group of astronomers led by David Lumb of ESA's Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in the Netherlands. They compared these clusters to those found in the nearby Universe. This study was conducted as part of the larger XMM-Newton Omega Project, which investigates the density of matter in the Universe under the lead of Jim Bartlett of the College de France. Clusters of galaxies are prodigious emitters of X-rays because they contain a large quantity of high-temperature gas. This gas surrounds galaxies in the same way as steam surrounds people in a sauna. By measuring the quantity and energy of X-rays from a cluster, astronomers can work out both the temperature of the cluster gas and also the mass of the cluster.
Theoretically, in a Universe where the density of matter is high, clusters of galaxies would continue to grow with time and so, on average, should contain more mass now than in the past.
Most astronomers believe that we live in a low-density Universe in which a mysterious substance known as 'dark energy' accounts for 70% of the content of the cosmos and, therefore, pervades everything. In this scenario, clusters of galaxies should stop growing early in the history of the Universe and look virtually indistinguishable from those of today.
In a paper soon to be published by the European journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, astronomers from the XMM-Newton Omega Project present results showing that clusters of galaxies in the distant Universe are not like those of today. They seem to give out more X-rays than today. So clearly, clusters of galaxies have changed their appearance with time.
In an accompanying paper, Alain Blanchard of the Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de l'Observatoire Midi-Pyrénées and his team use the results to calculate how the abundance of galaxy clusters changes with time. Blanchard says, "There were fewer galaxy clusters in the past."
Such a result indicates that the Universe must be a high-density environment, in clear contradiction to the 'concordance model,' which postulates a Universe with up to 70% dark energy and a very low density of matter. Blanchard knows that this conclusion will be highly controversial, saying, "To account for these results you have to have a lot of matter in the Universe and that leaves little room for dark energy."
To reconcile the new XMM-Newton observations with the concordance models, astronomers would have to admit a fundamental gap in their knowledge about the behaviour of the clusters and, possibly, of the galaxies within them. For instance, galaxies in the faraway clusters would have to be injecting more energy into their surrounding gas than is currently understood. That process should then gradually taper off as the cluster and the galaxies within it grow older.
No matter which way the results are interpreted, XMM-Newton has given astronomers a new insight into the Universe and a new mystery to puzzle over. As for the possibility that the XMM-Newton results are simply wrong, they are in the process of being confirmed by other X-ray observations. Should these return the same answer, we might have to rethink our understanding of the Universe.