Researchers from the United Kingdom are joining an international effort to reveal what the universe looked like a split second after it exploded into existence, and how the cosmic order we see today emerged from primordial chaos.
Six British universities will analyze the data and build new instruments for the Simmons Observatory, a group of telescopes that examine the sky from a privileged location in Cerro Toco, 5,300 meters above Chile’s Atacama Desert.
The observatory houses a 20-foot telescope and three smaller 16-inch instruments that measure the cosmic microwave background (CMB) – the residual heat from the birth of the universe. UK scientists will build two additional telescopes to enhance the facility’s sensitivity.
Dr Colin Vincent, associate director of astronomy at the Science and Technology Facilities Council, said funding for researchers in the UK would allow them to “lead discoveries” alongside teams from other countries and uncover “secrets since the dawn of history”.
Radio astronomers in the United States stumbled upon the existence of the CMB in the 1960s when they researched the origins of a bewildering “hum” that came from all over the sky. The mysterious microwaves were duly traced back to heat from the beginning of the universe, which cooled as it expanded.
Through detailed measurements of CMB radiation, astronomers hope to know what the universe will look like a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the universe began. Many scientists believe that tiny fluctuations in energy in the early universe became the seeds of galaxies and galaxy clusters as the universe went through a deep expansion period known as cosmic inflation.
The Simmons observatory aims to accurately measure the precise cosmic background radiation so that researchers can determine which of the many proposed models for inflation the universe appears to have followed. The observatory also aims to shed light on dark matter, the mysterious dark matter clinging to galaxies, proposed dark energy believed to be driving the expansion of the universe, and searching for primordial gravitational waves — short jitters in spacetime that it may have walked through. The universe from the moment it was created.
The US-led project includes 85 institutes from 13 countries, with Imperial College London and the universities of Cambridge, Cardiff, Manchester, Oxford and Sussex committing new projects at the observatory starting next month.
Professor Ermenia Calabrese of Cardiff’s School of Physics and Astronomy said the observatory will map the microwave sky with unprecedented sensitivity over the next decade. “Small fluctuations in CMB radiation tell us about the origins, content and evolution of the universe, and how all the structures we see in the night sky today began,” she said.
“Cardiff has been a member of Simmons Observatory since its inception, but this new UK investment will significantly expand its participation and enable new contributions to instrumentation and data processing using unique UK technologies.”
Professor Mark Devlin, a spokesman for the Simons Observatory at the University of Pennsylvania, said he was “extremely excited” about the UK teams joining the project. “The addition of new telescopes and researchers will be an important addition to our program and will help ensure that the Simmons Observatory brings back amazing science for years to come,” he said.