Scientists reveal ‘major discovery’ at Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics
- 1 HOUR AGO MARCH 18, 2014 11:45AM
ASTRONOMERS say they have spotted evidence that a split-second after the Big Bang, the newly formed universe ballooned out at a pace so astonishing that it left behind ripples in the fabric of the cosmos.
The discovery “gives us a window on the universe at the very beginning,’’ when it was far less than one-trillionth of a second old, said theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State University.
“It’s just amazing,’’ he said. “You can see back to the beginning of time.’’
Cold truth … the Dark Sector Lab (DSL), located about a kilometre from the Geographic South Pole, which houses the BICEP2 telescope (left) and the South Pole Telescope (right). Source: AFP
If confirmed, experts said, the discovery would be a major advance in the understanding of the early universe. Although many scientists already believed that an initial, extremely rapid growth spurt happened, they have long sought the evidence cited in the new study.
Researchers reported that they found it by peering into the faint light that remains from the Big Bang of nearly 14 billion years ago.
Marc Kamionkowski, a theoretical physicist at Johns Hopkins University who didn’t participate in the research, used a common baseball analogy, saying the finding is “not just a home run. It’s a grand slam.’’
He and other experts said the results must be confirmed by other observations, a standard caveat in science.
Eureka moment … Clem Pryke, Jamie Bock, Chao-Lin Kuo and John Kovac smile during a news conference at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusets, regarding their new findings on the early expansion of the universe. Picture: Elise Amendola Source: AP
Right after the Big Bang, the universe was a hot soup of particles. It took about 380,000 years to cool enough that the particles could form atoms, then stars and galaxies. Billions of years later, planets formed from gas and dust that were orbiting stars. The universe has continued to spread out.
Krauss said he thinks the new results could rank among the greatest discoveries in astrophysics over the last 25 years, such as the Nobel prize-winning discovery that the universe’s expansion is accelerating.
Life and death … NASA celebrates the reboot of COSMOS by releasing images including this one of a dying star shrouded by a blanket of hailstones forming the bug nebula. Source: Flickr
The results were announced by a collaboration that included researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the University of Minnesota, Stanford University, the California Institute of Technology and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The team plans to submit its results to a scientific journal this week, said its leader, John Kovac of Harvard.
Astronomers scanned about 2 per cent of the sky for three years with a telescope at the South Pole, where the air is exceptionally dry.
Billions of stars … This picture released on March 17 and taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows the Monkey Head Nebula or NGC2174. Source: AFP
They were looking for a specific pattern in light waves within the faint microwave glow left over from the Big Bang. The pattern has long been considered evidence of rapid growth, known as inflation. Kovac called it “the smoking-gun signature of inflation.’’
The reported detection suggests that “inflation has sent us a telegram,’’ Kamionkowski said.
The researchers say the light-wave pattern was caused by gravitational waves, which are ripples in space and time. If verified, the new work would be the first detection of such waves from the birth of the universe, which have been called the first tremors of the Big Bang.
Eye in the sky … NASA has celebrated the reboot of the famous COSMOS television series by releasing incredible space images, including this one of the Ring Nebula’s true shape. Source: Flickr
Arizona State’s Krauss cautioned that the light-wave pattern might not be a sign of inflation, although he stressed that it’s “extremely likely’’ that it is. It’s “our best hope’’ for a direct test of whether the rapid growth spurt happened, he said.
Alan Guth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a creator of the idea of inflation, said the finding already suggests that some ideas about the rapid expansion of the universe can be ruled out.
It had not been clear whether the light-wave pattern would be detectable even if inflation really happened, he said, but luckily “nature is cooperating with us, laying out its cards in a way that we can see them.’’
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