Two telescopes on a Chilean mountaintop are poised to tell us much about the universe in its infancy. They are surveying the faint temperature fluctuations left over from the explosive birth of the universe, with the goal of piecing together its early history and understanding how clusters of galaxies evolved.
The telescopes are measuring these temperature fluctuations, known as cosmic microwave background radiation or CMB for short, from their perch 17,000 feet above sea level in Chile’s desolate Atacama Desert, where a dry atmosphere permits radiation to reach Earth with relatively little attenuation. In contrast to backyard telescopes that help us see visible light from stars and planets, these telescopes collect invisible microwave radiation.
These invisible waves are mostly uniform but contain slight differences in intensity and polarization that hold a wealth of information for cosmologists, said Lyman Page, the Henry De Wolf Smyth Professor of Physics. Page and Professor of Physics Suzanne Staggs co-lead two telescope projects, the Atacama Cosmology Telescope (ACT) and the Atacama B-mode Search telescope (ABS), which are funded by the National Science Foundation.
“If you imagine the temperature perturbations as a distant mountain range, the peaks and valleys correspond to the temperature variations,” Page said. “By looking at the patterns — the spacing between peaks, and whether they are narrow or fat — we are able to answer questions about the composition and evolution of the universe,” Page said.
ACT, which is about 18 feet across and looks like a giant metal bowl, has already made new discoveries, and confirmed and extended the findings of other CMB surveys, including two space-based telescopes, NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) and the European Space Agency’s Planck mission. A new, more sensitive receiver is currently being mounted on the ACT telescope, which is a collaborative effort with David Spergel, Princeton’s Charles A. Young Professor of Astronomy on the Class of 1897 Foundation, along with researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, National Institutes of Standards and Technology, the University of British Columbia, and 10 other institutions contributing significantly to the instruments and analysis.
The CMB originated in the hot plasma soon after the Big Bang, which cosmologists consider to be the birth of the universe. As the universe expanded, the radiation propagated, carrying the secrets of the early universe with it. One of the questions is why the CMB on opposite sides of the universe is so similar in temperature. The leading explanation of this observation is the inflation model, which posits that the universe underwent a rapid acceleration of its expansion just after the Big Bang.
This is where the lower-resolution, second telescope comes in. Co-led by Staggs, the ABS is looking for signs of inflation. “Inflation should produce gravitational waves which create patterns in the CMB called ‘B modes,’” said Staggs. B modes are extremely faint — to measure them requires an instrument that can detect temperature changes of just billionths of a degree. To obtain these sensitivities, ABS mirrors, which are relatively small at about two feet across, sit inside a cryogenically cooled barrel.
The two telescopes can be operated remotely, but require frequent trips to the Chilean peak, which often include Princeton students and postdocs. The team at Princeton includes Senior Research Physicist Norm Jarosik, Associate Research Scholar Jonathan Sievers, postdoctoral researchers Matthew Hasselfield, Rénee Hložek, Akito Kusaka and Laura Newburgh, and graduate students Farzan Beroz, Kang Hoon (Steve) Choi, Emily Grace, Colin Hill, Shuay-Pwu (Patty) Ho, Christine Pappas, Lucas Parker, Blake Sherwin, Sara Simon, Katerina Visnjic and Sophie Zhang.
–By Catherine Zandonella