Canadian scientists seek to unravel Big Bang mystery over Antarctica
Published Sunday, January 18, 2015 10:14PM EST
Scientists from two Canadian universities have ventured to the bottom of the world in hopes of unraveling 13 billion years of history.
A team of scientists from nearly a dozen institutions, including the University of British Columbia and the University of Toronto, has traveled to Antarctica to learn more about what happened a fraction of a second after the universe was created.
"We're trying to explore what the universe was like just after the Big Bang. A tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang," said Barth Netterfield, a University of Toronto astrophysicist.
Scientists aren't exactly sure what happened more than 13 billion years ago after the Big Bang. One theory, called cosmic inflation, suggests that space expanded faster than the speed of light. This team of scientists, including Netterfield, is hoping to find evidence of that theory high above Antarctica.
The team will attach a telescope nicknamed "SPIDER" – for Searching for the Echoes of Inflation – to a giant balloon and fly it over Antarctica. The scientists have been building the telescope, which consists of six cameras, for six years.
The balloon will fly at a height of 36 kilometres, three times higher than commercial airlines. It will be looking for the pattern of gravitational waves produced by the fluctuation of energy and density caused by the Big Bang.
"The idea is that the farther away you are, the further back in time you look," said Netterfield. "The universe is basically transparent so you can look back to basically the beginning of time."
So why Antarctica? Netterfield said they chose the barren continent in part because the telescope won’t land on anyone in case of an accident. Together, the telescope and the balloon weigh about four tonnes. The balloon cannot operate when the sun is down.
"If the sun sets on the balloon, the gas cools and we sink," said Netterfield. "So we need to keep constant light on the balloon. The only way to do that is to go below the Antarctic circle or above the Arctic circle during the summer."
The Antarctic winds were a contributing factor too, as they will carry the balloon back to the team.
Once the balloon has returned, it will take scientists several years to sort through the telescope data.
The Canadian scientists have been staying in McMurdo, a research station in Antarctica.
Netterfield said the temperatures there have been relatively warm – for Antarctica.
"It's a balmy zero (Celsius)," he said. "Most days it was colder in Toronto than it was in McMurdo."
With a report from CTV's John Vennavally-Rao