Evidence that answers long-standing questions about the age, composition and evolution of the universe was gathered by scientists using NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, a satellite orbiting 1 million miles from Earth, during a 12-month observation of the entire sky.
"This picture of the early universe is a gold mine," Charles Bennett, WMAP principal investigator at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., said after the National Aeronautics and Space Administration released the picture Tuesday. "The patterns in the picture tell us all kinds of things about the universe."
One key finding in the data is that the first generation of stars to shine in the universe ignited much earlier than previously thought — only 200 million years after the Big Bang, the theoretical explanation for the explosion that gave birth to the universe.
The image shows the "afterglow" of the Big Bang, called the cosmic microwave background.
Also, the new portrait pegs the age of the universe at 13.7 billion years old, with a small 1 percent margin of error.
"We have a map of the earliest light of the universe that is complete, and it is stunning to look at," Princeton physicist Lyman Page said.
"The light seen today as the cosmic microwave background has traveled for more than 13 billion years to reach us," NASA said in a statement. "Within this light are infinitesimal patterns that mark the seeds of what later grew into clusters of galaxies and the vast structure we see all around us."
Patterns in the afterglow of the Big Bang are frozen in place only 380,000 years after the Big Bang, NASA said.
WMAP is the result of a partnership between the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and Princeton University.