In physical cosmology and astronomy, dark energy is an unknown form of energy that affects the universe on the largest scales. The first observational evidence for its existence came from measurements of supernovae, which showed that the universe does not expand at a constant rate; rather, the expansion of the universe is accelerating. Understanding the evolution of the universe requires knowledge of its starting conditions and its composition. Prior to these observations, it was thought that all forms of matter and energy in the universe would only cause the expansion to slow down over time. Measurements of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) suggest the universe began in a hot Big Bang, from which general relativity explains its evolution and the subsequent large-scale motion. Without introducing a new form of energy, there was no way to explain how an accelerating universe could be measured. Since the 1990s, dark energy has been the most accepted premise to account for the accelerated expansion. As of 2021, there are active areas of cosmology research aimed at understanding the fundamental nature of dark energy.
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Assuming that the lambda-CDM model of cosmology is correct, the best current measurements indicate that dark energy contributes 68% of the total energy in the present-day observable universe. The mass–energy of dark matter and ordinary (baryonic) matter contributes 26% and 5%, respectively, and other components such as neutrinos and photons contribute a very small amount. The density of dark energy is very low (~ 7 × 10−30 g/cm3), much less than the density of ordinary matter or dark matter within galaxies. However, it dominates the mass–energy of the universe because it is uniform across space.
Two proposed forms of dark energy are the cosmological constant, representing a constant energy density filling space homogeneously, and scalar fields such as quintessence or moduli, dynamic quantities having energy densities that can vary in time and space. Contributions from scalar fields that are constant in space are usually also included in the cosmological constant. The cosmological constant can be formulated to be equivalent to the zero-point radiation of space i.e. the vacuum energy. Scalar fields that change in space can be difficult to distinguish from a cosmological constant because the change may be extremely slow.
Due to the toy model nature of concordance cosmology, some experts believe that a more accurate general relativistic treatment of the structures that exist on all scales in the real universe may do away with the need to invoke dark energy. Inhomogeneous cosmologies, which attempt to account for the back-reaction of structure formation on the metric, generally do not acknowledge any dark energy contribution to the energy density of the Universe.