Right now, there is a telescope floating over the Antarctic that could possibly contribute to one of the most significant scientific discoveries of our lifetime. And it’s just hanging there, waiting for the right moment to make that particular discovery.
The telescope in question is part of an experiment called EBEX – short for “The E and B Experiment.” It is also the creation of scientists at Columbia University in New York, who describe it as “a balloon-borne polarimeter designed to measure the intensity and polarization of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB).” Specifically, the particular background radiation it’s looking for comes from a rather significant part of our universe’s history: “Measurements of the polarization of the CMB could probe an inflationary epoch that took place shortly after the big bang and significantly improve constraints on the values of several cosmological parameters,” the Columbia U team explain, adding that “EBEX will also provide critical information about the level of polarized Galactic dust which will be necessary for all future CMB polarization experiments.” Or, to put it more succinctly, EBEX could possibly collect radiation from the supposed creation of everything, thereby providing proof of the Big Bang theory for the first time ever.
This isn’t actually EBEX’s first flight; the results from this Antarctic mission will be combined with earlier results taken from New Mexico three years ago, as well as information gleaned from a second camera located in a Chile’s Atacama desert. The project has been in the works for almost a decade, with the original proposal submitted way back in January 2005.
The patience required to see the project this far stems from a firm belief that the team is really on to something with this particular plan. “Something special happened at that time,” team leader Amber Miller told New Scientist, referring to the period 380,000 years ago when the bang was believed to have happened. “As that light [from the initial big bang] got away [from the explosion], it carried with it an imprint, a photograph, of what the universe looked like before anything was formed… If we find the signatures of those waves, that tells us something about the type of expansion that took place in that early universe and what drove it.”
The ideal result from the project – which sees a 1.5 meter, 2.7 tonne Dragone-type telescope suspended above the ice from a massive helium balloon the size of a football stadium, hoping to capture a specific radioactive signature called B-type polarization by photographing microwaves emitted all the way back at the universe’s infancy almost 400,000 years ago – is to gain better understanding into what actually happened at the Big Bang, including potentially finding conclusive proof for the first time that the Big Bang even happened.
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