What is Dark Energy?
In physical cosmology and astronomy, dark energy is an unknown form of energy which is hypothesized to permeate all of space, tending to accelerate the expansion of the universe. Dark energy is the most accepted hypothesis to explain the observations since the 1990s indicating that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate.
Assuming that the standard model of cosmology is correct, the best current measurements indicate that dark energy contributes 68.3% of the total energy in the present-day observable universe. The mass–energy of dark matter and ordinary (baryonic) matter contribute 26.8% and 4.9%, respectively, and other components such as neutrinos and photons contribute a very small amount. The density of dark energy (~ 7 × 10−30 g/cm3) is very low, much less than the density of ordinary matter or dark matter within galaxies. However, it comes to dominate the mass–energy of the universe because it is uniform across space.
One explanation for dark energy is that it is a property of space. Albert Einstein was the first person to realize that empty space is not nothing. Space has amazing properties, many of which are just beginning to be understood. The first property that Einstein discovered is that it is possible for more space to come into existence. Then one version of Einstein’s gravity theory, the version that contains a cosmological constant, makes a second prediction: “empty space” can possess its own energy. Because this energy is a property of space itself, it would not be diluted as space expands. As more space comes into existence, more of this energy-of-space would appear. As a result, this form of energy would cause the universe to expand faster and faster. Unfortunately, no one understands why the cosmological constant should even be there, much less why it would have exactly the right value to cause the observed acceleration of the universe.
NASA/STSci/Ann Feild | Animation: NASA/Chandra