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Is A Giant Vacuum Cleaner In Space 'Tilting The Universe'?

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The most recent Planck survey showed evidence of anomalies in space - but no Dark Flow | Planck

Don't panic: reports in the press that a mysterious presence may be tilting the universe are not quite what they appear.

The Daily Mail today quotes so-called "space enthusiast" David Glenn - who has a minimal web presence and no citations in Google News as far as we can tell - as saying that unknown and ridiculously massive super-structures might be affecting the way the universe expands.

According to Glenn, while the universe was once largely thought to be consistent and even in all directions, there is now evidence that this is not quite the case.

Glenn suggests that "giant vacuum cleaners that suck galaxies towards them and tilt our universe" may be hiding in deep space.

But before you start to worry, it's worth taking a calm look at the evidence.

Take 'Dark Flow', one of the theories cited in the Mail piece. Dark Flow theory claims that certain galaxies have been observed moving in slightly different directions and speeds than those predicted by Hubble's Law of consistent expansion (at a rate of about 67.15 km/s). The presence of a massive object somewhere in the universe pulling clusters of galaxies towards it is designed to explain that anomalous motion.

And yes, the idea itself is based on real data - though the quality of that data is debated.

Back in 2008, the three-year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe indicated a "surprisingly coherent" 600-1000 km/s flow of galaxy clusters towards a certain part of the sky. Nasa's Alexander Kashlinsky, who led the study, suggests that the effect could be caused by the impact of another universe 'tugging' on our own. Other scientists said it could be the reverse, and that matter from another universe was being "injected" into our own.

But even Kashlinsky said that there was by no means enough data to say for sure whether Dark Flow existed. And that's the main issue - data. Scientists dispute that the methodology from the original report was good enough to warrant further study, and more recent data from ESA's Planck satellite found no evidence for Dark Pull at all.

Which is not to say the universe is perfect. Far from it.

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For as it turns out, the Planck data - released as part of an ongoing survey of the relic radiation from the Big Bang - did show a number of anomalies that scientists say may require "new physics" to explain.

For instance, it found small imperfections in Cosmic Background Radiation that arose immediately after the birth of the universe, and were "stretched to cosmologically large scales" during inflation.

It also found a massive "cold spot" in the universe that "runs counter to the prediction made by the standard model that the Universe should be broadly similar in any direction we look", and an "asymmetry in the average temperatures on opposite hemispheres of the sky".

And yes, scientists can't currently explain them.

"The fact that Planck has made such a significant detection of these anomalies erases any doubts about their reality; it can no longer be said that they are artefacts of the measurements. They are real and we have to look for a credible explanation" said Paolo Natoli of the University of Ferrara, Italy earlier this year.

But rather than speculate about giant vacuum cleaners, the team behind Planck - and many other academic teams - are turning back to the data for guidance.

"With the most accurate and detailed maps of the microwave sky ever made, Planck is painting a new picture of the Universe… We see an almost perfect fit to the standard model of cosmology, but with intriguing features that force us to rethink some of our basic assumptions," said Jan Tauber, ESA’s Planck Project Scientist.

"This is the beginning of a new journey and we expect that our continued analysis of Planck data will help shed light on this conundrum."

And as for Dark Flow? Well, some researchers aren't ready to give up on that either. So while it might be too early to start pointing to giant vacuum cleaners in the sky, it does still seem that whatever really is going on out in the universe, it's probably stranger than we'd like to imagine.