News, Science

Scientists Detect Light Patterns From First Moments Of Universe

Image of the solar system. Image: NASA
Image of the solar system. Image: NASA

A team of researchers announced March 17 that they have detected light patterns in space that could be relics of the earliest moments of the universe.

Scientists believe that the universe was created almost 14 billion years ago in a type of “explosion” known as the Big Bang. Many scientists also believe that, a fraction of a second after the Big Bang, the universe began to expand quickly and dramatically. They call this sudden expansion “cosmic inflation.”

But so far cosmic inflation has just been a theory, and many scientists have been looking for proof that the universe expanded in this way. Now, the discovery of light patterns by a team of researchers could help prove that the theory of cosmic inflation is true.

The researchers are 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 scientists spent three years scanning a small section of the sky using a telescope located at the South Pole. They were looking for a specific pattern of light waves in the faint glow of light left behind from the Big Bang.

This light – called cosmic microwave background – is the oldest and most distant light that telescopes on Earth can see. Although it is very faint, it fills the sky in every direction.

About 100 years ago Albert Einstein, a famous scientist, suggested that when something violent happens in the universe it creates ripples in space-time. He called these ripples “gravitational waves.”

Scientists thought that, if the universe did suddenly begin to expand after the Big Bang, the ripples it created might be preserved in the cosmic microwave background. If we could see these first gravitational waves, they believed it would help us learn about the origins of the universe.

In 2009, the research team installed very sensitive radiation detectors on the BICEP2 telescope at the South Pole to help them look for ripples. They chose the South Pole because the air there is very dry and clear, which makes it easier to see the faint light they were looking for.

After three years of observations, the researchers found a swirling pattern in the cosmic microwave background. It matched the pattern that had been predicted for the gravitational waves caused by the initial expansion of the universe.

They studied the data from the telescope very carefully to make sure the patterns they were seeing were real before they announced their discovery.

The scientists say they expect their findings to be controversial. They know they will only be widely accepted if other scientists, using other telescopes and instruments, can duplicate their results.

Other scientists are very excited about the announcement. They say this is the most convincing evidence yet of gravitational waves and of cosmic inflation. If these findings can be verified by other researchers, it will help scientists understand the earliest moments the universe.

Thank you to physics experts Valerie Strain and Julie Abraham for their help and expertise with this article.

Related Links
More about astronomy on Cornell University’s “Ask An Astronomer” website.

By Kathleen Tilly

Writing/Discussion Prompt
This is a very challenging article to read and understand. Not only are many of the words difficult, but the ideas are complicated as well. The good news is that you don’t always have to understand everything in an article. As long as you get the overall idea, that’s great. Write one sentence that (sort of) sums up what this article is saying. Hint: You’ll have to leave out a lot of facts.

Reading Prompt: Reading Unfamiliar Words
Circle all of the words or phrases in this article that you didn’t understand. Put a line under the ones you think you should look up online or in a dictionary.

Junior and Intermediate
Predict the meaning of and rapidly solve unfamiliar words using different types of cues (OME, Reading: 3.2).

Grammar Feature: Synonyms
Synonyms are words that sound and are spelled differently, but they have similar meanings.

Think of a synonym for each of the following words:
1. scientist
2. research
3. universe
4. patterns
5. expansion
6. discovery
7. controversial
8. understand