A Shot in the Light

NASA-backed scientists, led at Columbia by Amber Miller, are aiming a new telescope at a most distant target.

by Douglas Quenqua Published Spring 2013
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TAIL FEATHERS: The balloon, parachute, and cables trail from the telescope shortly before liftoff. / Photograph by Asad Aboobaker

At the time inflation supposedly took place, the brand-new universe was too dense and hot for any light to escape. And it stayed that way for about 380,000 years. But the gravitational waves created by the rapid expansion would have left an impression on light that was emitted when things began to cool down. That light, cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB), is known to exist because scientists have already detected and photographed it, although not with instruments sensitive enough to detect the imprints of those gravitational waves.

EBEX is equipped with detectors capable of sensing the faintest hint of these impressions.

“If you can detect this very special signature,” says Miller, “you’re actually looking at information that comes from the instant that the universe was created.”

Much like a twenty-megapixel camera will produce detail on a photo that a ten-megapixel camera never could, the EBEX telescope represents a technological leap forward, an instrument sensitive enough to read eons-old fluctuations that were previously undetectable.

“We’re looking for a small signal in a big background,” says Britt Reichborn-Kjennerud ’10GSAS, a postdoctoral fellow who worked closely with Miller on the project.

CAMERA READY: The helium-filled balloon will soon lift the telescope’s three-ton body skyward. / Photograph by Asad Aboobaker

While the scientists could have done this work elsewhere — CMB exists in every part of the universe — Antarctica proved to be the friendliest environment, in part because the Antarctic winds blow in a circle, so the telescope could finish its journey more or less where it began. “You need your experiment to come back to a recoverable place,” says Miller. “You can also get a long flight without having to fly over anything you’re not allowed to fly over.”

Building the telescope required the collaboration of seventeen institutions, chief among them the University of Minnesota, which built the camera that took the pictures, and NASA, which funded the project and managed the launch. For seven years, Miller’s team constructed, tested, and adjusted the telescope, as well as the camera and the gondola to carry it. Late last year, the entire instrument and fifteen members of the crew made the journey to Antarctica. For some members of the team, Antarctica became home for more than four months.

Photograph by Asad AboobakerOn December 28, the flight crew prepared for the launch. The temperature had dropped to minus nine degrees. For nine hours the crew waited on the ice for just the right conditions. Finally, the balloon billowed upward, casting a shadow that grew and swept rapidly across the ice, lifting the EBEX telescope high into the atmosphere. “It was timed so perfectly that EBEX seemingly just gracefully slid off the pin and floated upward,” wrote a member of the crew on his blog.

With a seven-month-old infant at home, Miller had to leave Antarctica a week before launch. “I was watching it over the Internet and on the phone and on the computer,” she says. “It was heart-wrenching.”

For two weeks, the polar-vortex winds carried the telescope in a circle above the South Pole as it collected data. It landed on January 24, completing a nearly month-long journey around the pole.

Fully analyzing the data will take years, and it will be at least several months before scientists will know whether they found the elusive signals they sought.

“If the signals are there,” says Miller, “it’s a smoking gun for inflation, because there’s no other reason they should be there.”

If the signals aren’t there, that will be valuable, too. “Different inflationary models predict different amplitudes of signal,” she says. “So not finding the specific signal we’ve been looking for would at least narrow down the possibilities of how the universe began.”

Amber Miller is a professor of physics at Columbia, where she also leads the Experimental Cosmology group. She serves as dean of science for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Douglas Quenqua is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Wired, and the New York Observer.

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