Whatever dark energy is, explanations for it have less wiggle room following a Hubble Space Telescope observation that has refined the measurement of the universe's present expansion rate to a precision where the error is smaller than five percent.
he new value for the expansion rate, known as the Hubble constant, or Ho (after Edwin Hubble who first measured the expansion of the universe nearly a century ago), is 74.2 kilometers per second per megaparsec (error margin of ± 3.6). The results agree closely with an earlier measurement gleaned from Hubble of 72 ± 8 km/sec/megaparsec, but are now more than twice as precise.
The Hubble measurement, conducted by the SHOES (Supernova Ho for the Equation of State) Team and led by Adam Riess, of the Space Telescope Science Institute and the Johns Hopkins University, uses a number of refinements to streamline and strengthen the construction of a cosmic "distance ladder," a billion light-years in length, that astronomers use to determine the universe's expansion rate.
Hubble observations of pulsating stars called Cepheid variables in a nearby cosmic mile marker, the galaxy NGC 4258, and in the host galaxies of recent supernovae, directly link these distance indicators. The use of Hubble to bridge these rungs in the ladder eliminated the systematic errors that are almost unavoidably introduced by comparing measurements from different telescopes.
Riess explains the new technique: "It's like measuring a building with a long tape measure instead of moving a yard stick end over end. You avoid compounding the little errors you make every time you move the yardstick. The higher the building, the greater the error."