UK joins international effort to discover first moments of universe

Researchers in the UK are joining an international effort to find out what the universe looked like a fraction of a second after it appeared, and how the cosmic order we see today emerged from primordial chaos.

Six British universities are to analyze data and build new instruments for the Simons Observatory, a group of telescopes that scan the sky from a vantage point on Cerro Toco, 5,300 meters above the Atacama Desert in Chile.

The observatory houses a 20-foot telescope and three smaller 16-inch instruments that measure the cosmic microwave background (CMB) – the heat left over from the birth of the universe. British scientists will build two more telescopes to increase the sensitivity of the facility.

Dr Colin Vincent, associate director for astronomy at the Council for Science and Technology Facilities, said funding the UK researchers would allow them to ‘spearhead discoveries’ alongside teams from other countries and discover ” the secrets of the mists of time”.

American radio astronomers stumbled upon the existence of the CMB in the 1960s when they looked into the origins of a puzzling “buzz” that came from all over the sky. The mysterious microwaves have been duly traced back to the heat of the early universe, which cooled as it expanded.

Through detailed measurements of the CMB, astronomers hope to know what the universe looked like a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a second after the universe began. Many scientists believe that tiny energy fluctuations in the early universe became seeds for galaxies and galaxy clusters as the universe went through a profound period of expansion known as cosmic inflation.

The Simons Observatory aims to measure the CMB with such precision that researchers can determine which of the many proposed inflation patterns the universe appears 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 believed to drive the expansion of the universe, and chase primordial gravitational waves – brief shivers in space-time that may have raced through the universe from its onset.

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 .

Professor Erminia Calabrese from the Cardiff School of Physics and Astronomy said the observatory will map the microwave sky with unprecedented sensitivity over the next decade. “Tiny 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 the Simons Observatory since its inception, but this new UK investment will significantly broaden its participation and enable new contributions on hardware and data processing with unique UK technologies.”

Professor Mark Devlin, spokesman for the University of Pennsylvania’s Simons Observatory, said he was “very excited” about the UK teams joining the project. “Adding new telescopes and researchers will be a great addition to our program and help ensure that the Simons Observatory delivers amazing science for years to come,” he said.

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