A study shows it stifles galaxy growth as it helps expand the universe.
A mysterious form of energy that is speeding the universe's expansion is now showing itself as a cosmic craftsman of sorts.
Astronomers have discovered that the repulsive force known as dark energy sets limits on how large clusters of galaxies can grow.
The new results, based on observations from NASA's Chandra X-Ray Telescope, provide a long-sought confirmation of dark energy's influence on the cosmos. That influence was first discovered serendipitously in the 1990s by astrophysicists studying the expansion rate of the universe. They found the universe's expansion rate was not slowing down as expected, but speeding up.
The new results show that in addition to accelerating the expansion of the universe, dark energy also affects individual structures within the universe.
It does this by allowing fewer galaxy clusters to form.
"We're observing the unambiguous signature of the effects of dark energy on the growth of structure" in the universe.
Over the very long haul, the Chandra results imply that the universe will not end in a "big rip," with everything violently torn apart, as some astrophysicists had speculated. Instead, objects too loosely bound by gravity to overcome the repulsive force of dark energy will gradually vanish into the distance.
For instance, from the vantage point of the Milky Way, it will be lights out in a few tens of billion years for the Virgo Cluster, a gathering of at least 1,300 galaxies in a gravitationally corralled herd currently some 60 million light-years from Earth.