Scientists solve mystery of universe

11.05.05: WE HAVE solved the mystery of the universe. Or at least, thanks to the Planck probe, we have seen what the universe was like when it was less than a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old.

Among the probe's discoveries are that the universe literally popped out of nothing and that it will end in a Big Crunch, a sort of mirror image of the Big Bang.

Planck, launched by the European Space Agency's Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou in French Guyana earlier this year, is suspended in space 150m kilometres from the Earth at the Lagrange-2 point, where the gravitational pulls of the earth and the sun exactly balance. This location provides the perfect vantage-point for observing cosmic background radiation, the faint "afterglow" of the Big Bang explosion in which the universe was born 13.5billion years ago.

Planck's measurements of tiny variations in the temperature of the Big Bang radiation from one part of the sky to another appear to confirm the highly speculative theory of "inflation", which maintains that the explosion of the Big Bang was driven by the peculiar anti-gravity effect of the vacuum of empty space.

If the inflation theory is correct, the entire universe popped into existence out of nothing at all. As cosmologists are fond of saying, it was "the ultimate free lunch".

Planck has also shown that the universe contains sufficient matter for its combined gravity to halt and reverse its expansion. The result, in 98billion years or so, will be a Big Crunch, in which all of matter is squeezed into the impossibly small volume from which it came.

"Far from ending in a whimper, it is quite conceivable that the universe will end in another ban