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UBC's SPIDER telescope seeks Big Bang's 'smoking gun'

12/24/2014 09:10 EST | Updated 02/23/2015 05:59 EST
UBC scientists are in Antarctica hoping to launch a telescope that will peer into the universe's primordial light and reveal what happened at the very beginning of the Big Bang.

The scientists, who are part of a team made up of five different universities, plan to launch SPIDER — an instrument fitted with six telescopes bolted together and attached to a helium balloon — for its maiden voyage sometime next week.

The exact day depends on optimal weather conditions, says Mark Halpern, a member of the SPIDER team and a UBC professor with the department of physics and astronomy.

That's because the SPIDER, which weighs about the same as a Ford Explorer, will be attached to an inflatable helium balloon that is roughly the the size of a professional hockey arena. 

The telescope will rise to an altitude of 36 km and then remain up in the air for 20 days, cruising on the circumpolar winds that circle the coast of the Antarctica.

On Dec. 19, scientists launched ANITA, which is looking for energetic cosmic waves scattering off the Antarctic ice and using the frozen continent as the detector, using the same method. 

Watch an animated GIF of ANITA’s launch

Why is the universe so big?

SPIDER will attempt to find patterns of polarizations that could have only been made in the fractions of a second after the Big Bang. 

"It would be a smoking gun of how the universe began," Halpern said on CBC's On The Coast. 

Halpern said these patterns, if they exist and are found, would prove that at the Big Bang there was an "unbelievable expansion of the universe ... that the whole universe came to be in a tiny fraction of a second out of something that at the start was way less than a grain of sand, and then stopped expanding."

The puzzle for scientists is understanding why the universe, which is so old, didn't fly apart or collapse, Halpern said.

"If it kept expanding, it would now be empty ... It would be so expanded that the number of atoms per cubic metre would be uninteresting."

SPIDER was shipped from Canada, where it was built over the course of a decade. Researchers had to break it up into pieces and then put it back together on site.

The researchers chose Antarctica for two reasons — if there was an accident and the telescope fell down, there would be minimal harm to humans, and secondly, by riding the circumpolar wind, SPIDER would land back roughly where it started.

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