Researchers from the UK are joining an international effort to uncover what the universe looked like a fraction of a second after it burst into existence, and how the cosmic order we see today emerged from primordial chaos.
Six UK universities are to crunch data and build new instrumentation for the Simons Observatory, a group of telescopes that scan the heavens from a vantage point on Cerro Toco, 5,300 metres above the Atacama desert in Chile.
The observatory houses a 20ft telescope and three smaller 16in instruments which measure the cosmic microwave background (CMB) – the heat left over from the birth of the universe. UK scientists will build two further telescopes to boost the facility’s sensitivity.
Dr Colin Vincent, associate director for astronomy at the Science and Technology Facilities Council, said funding for UK researchers would allow them to “spearhead discoveries” alongside teams from other countries and uncover “the secrets from the very dawn of time”.
US radio astronomers stumbled on the existence of the CMB in the 1960s when they delved into the origins of a puzzling “hum” that came from all corners of the sky. The mysterious microwaves were duly traced back to the heat from the beginning of the universe, which cooled as it expanded.
Through detailed measurements of the CMB, astronomers hope to learn what the universe looked 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 seeds for galaxies and clusters of galaxies as the universe went through a profound period of expansion known as cosmic inflation.
The Simons Observatory aims to measure the CMB so accurately that researchers can work out which of the many proposed models of inflation the universe seems to have followed. The observatory also aims to shed light on dark matter, the mysterious invisible substance that clings to galaxies, and the proposed dark energy thought to drive the expansion of the universe, and hunt for primordial gravitational waves – brief shudders in spacetime that may have raced across the universe from the moment it arose.
The US-led project involves 85 institutes from 13 countries, with Imperial College London and the universities of Cambridge, Cardiff, Manchester, Oxford and Sussex committing to new projects at the observatory from next month.
Prof Erminia Calabrese at the School of Physics and Astronomy in Cardiff said the observatory will map the microwave sky with unprecedented sensitivity over the next decade. “Tiny fluctuations in the CMB radiation tell us about the origins, content and evolution of the universe, and how all the structures that we see in the night sky today started,” she said.
“Cardiff has been a member of the Simons Observatory since its inception, but this new UK investment will significantly expand its participation and enable new contributions on hardware and data processing with unique UK technologies.”
Prof Mark Devlin, a spokesperson for the Simons Observatory at the University of Pennsylvania, said he was “very excited” by the UK teams joining the project. “The addition of the new telescopes and researchers will be a significant addition to our programme and will help to ensure Simons Observatory returns amazing science for years to come,” he said.