The discovery -- which involves an analysis of variations in the brightness of microwave radiation -- is the first direct evidence to support the two-decade-old theory that the universe went through what is called inflation.
It also helps explain how matter eventually clumped together into planets, stars and galaxies in a universe that began as a remarkably smooth, super-hot soup.
"It's giving us our first clues about how inflation took place," said Michael Turner, assistant director for mathematics and physical sciences at the National Science Foundation. "This is absolutely amazing."
Brian Greene, a Columbia University physicist, said: "The observations are spectacular and the conclusions are stunning."
Researchers found the evidence for inflation by looking at a faint glow that permeates the universe. That glow, known as the cosmic microwave background, was produced when the universe was about 300,000 years old -- long after inflation had done its work.
But just as a fossil tells a paleontologist about long-extinct life, the pattern of light in the cosmic microwave background offers clues about what came before it. Of specific interest to physicists are subtle brightness variations that give images of the microwave background a lumpy appearance.
Physicists presented new measurements of those variations during a news conference at Princeton University. The measurements were made by a space-borne instrument called the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, or WMAP, launched by NASA in 2001.
Earlier studies of WMAP data have determined that the universe is 13.7 billion years old, give or take a few hundred thousand years. WMAP also measured variations in the cosmic microwave background so huge that they stretch across the entire sky. Those earlier observations are strong indicators of inflation, but no smoking gun, said Turner, who was not involved in the research.
The new analysis looked at variations in the microwave background over smaller patches of sky -- only billions of light-years across, instead of hundreds of billions.
Without inflation, the brightness variations over small patches of the sky would be the same as those observed over larger areas of the heavens. But the researchers found considerable differences in the brightness variations.
"The data favors inflation," said Charles Bennett, a Johns Hopkins University physicist who announced the discovery. He was joined by two Princeton colleagues, Lyman Page and David Spergel, who also contributed to the research.
Bennett added: "It amazes me that we can say anything at all about what transpired in the first trillionth of a second of the universe."
The physicists said small lumps in the microwave background began during inflation. Those lumps eventually coalesced into stars, galaxies and planets.
The measurements are scheduled to be published in a future issue of The Astrophysical Journal.