Researchers launch SPIDER telescope to study universe expansion

Mark Halpern, a UBC professor of physics and astronomy, along with a team of researchers, is studying patterns of the early universe with a specialized airborne telescope.

Their SPIDER telescope will be searching for Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR).

According to Halpern, “this is radiation from the early thermal glow of the plasma that filled the universe for the first few thousand years."

The team's primary goal is to study the primordial process known as inflation.

According to Halpern, the early universe expanded extraordinarily rapidly. Halpern says the math describing this phenomena would not produce a stable universe over billions of years, even the age of our universe at about 13.77 billion years. A variable is missing.

“What you would expect is, essentially instantly, the universe would fly apart and be empty, or re-collapse and vanish. By instantly, I mean a tiny, tiny fraction of a second," said Halpern. "We’re missing part of the physics that makes the thing be stable for a really long time.”

To explain, Halpern suggested an analogy. If you were to roll a marble down the top of a downward sloped cylindrical surface such as a pipe, you would assume that it would veer to the side and fall off after a few centimetres.

"I push a marble down the top of the pipe, and a quarter of a mile later it’s still on top of the pipe, you’re going to say I’m missing something," said Halpern, who said the research team draws this analogy with respect to the origin and growth of the universe and the missing variable.

SPIDER was launched to search for this variable.

“We’ve built, what we think, are the most sensitive telescopes in wavelength regime anyone has ever made. They can be so sensitive because they are up out of the atmosphere.” Halpern said.

The balloon-borne SPIDER telescope took 10 years to construct and will operate for 20 days over Antarctica. It operates with two distinguishing characteristics: extraordinary sensitivity and high vertical range above the atmosphere, 40km above the Antarctic, in the stratosphere.

According to Halpern, the researchers do not have explicit predictions as to what SPIDER will find.

“There is one concrete story for what happened early on, which is that in the first 10-34 seconds, the universe expanded," said Halpern. “The thing we’re trying to measure is, essentially, how long that lasted and just when it stopped.”