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Satellite Bound For L2 Will Map An Ancient Echo Of A Big Bang

"We're getting a snapshot of what the universe looked like 300,000 years after the Big Bang," said Princeton astrophysicist David Spergel, a project scientist.
Cape Canaveral - June 30, 2001
A Boeing Delta II rocket successfully launched NASA's Microwave Anisotropy Probe (MAP) into space today on a quest for the origins of the universe.

Liftoff occurred at 3:46 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 17B. Approximately one hour and 26 minutes later, the Boeing Delta II deployed the MAP spacecraft.

"Our job is to give MAP a safe ride into space," said Joy Bryant, director of NASA Expendable Launch Programs for Boeing. "The launch is a highly crucial part of the mission and we have put enormous time and effort into ensuring its success. Today all of that hard work paid off."

The MAP mission is managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. and was built in partnership with Princeton University in Princeton, NJ.

The mission's goal is to determine the history, content, shape, and fate of the universe. Since light from distant stars can take millions of years to reach earth, the pictures that MAP takes will represent the universe from just after the time of the Big Bang.

"We're getting a snapshot of what the universe looked like 300,000 years after the Big Bang," said Princeton astrophysicist David Spergel, a project scientist.

That's a long time ago, considering that the universe is thought to be somewhere around 14 billion years old. It's the equivalent of looking into the eyes of an 80-year-old man and seeing what he looked like 15 hours after birth.

The message scientists will take from this report is expected to answer some of the most fundamental and longstanding questions in cosmology, such as the age of the universe, what it is made of and how fast it is expanding.

To do so, the satellite, called MAP, or Microwave Anisotropy Probe, will measure exceedingly small variations -- anisotropies -- in the nearly uniform flow of background radiation.

Reading the spacing of these ripples will tell scientists how long it has been since they began spreading out, like waves from a rock thrown into a pool, and thus how long it has been since the Big Bang.

The pursuit of this information will take MAP far from home. The rocket leaving Cape Canaveral will carry the satellite not into a conventional orbit around Earth, but to a spot a million miles away where it will orbit the sun.

This destination, called the Lagrange point No. 2, is unique in that the combined gravity of the Earth and sun will keep the satellite in lockstep with the Earth, always forming a straight line from sun to Earth to satellite.

This vantage point, unoccupied by any other satellite, is relatively free of radiation and other interference. "It's a nice quiet place to be," said Spergel.

The probe will take three months to reach the Lagrange point and six months to collect data. The first analysis should be available near the end of 2002. The launch is set for 3:46:46 p.m. on June 30 at Cape Canaveral, but the possible launch "window" extends to July 5 in the event of problems or bad weather.

The quest to measure cosmic background radiation is a long-time pursuit at Princeton. Bell Labs scientists Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson won the Nobel Prize for discovering the radiation in 1965, but Princeton physicist David Wilkinson, using a device atop Guyot Hall, made a nearly simultaneous observation that confirmed the Penzias-Wilson discovery.

Wilkinson has been a leader in studying the microwave background, developing many probes that have established increasingly accurate measurements.

He was one of the principal scientists behind MAP's predecessor, called COBE, which confirmed the presence of anisotropies in the radiation. MAP will have 30 times the resolution of COBE, with 20 individual measuring devices compared to COBE's six.

The MAP project began in 1996 when NASA accepted a proposal for the satellite to be built in a partnership between NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. and Princeton University.

The team includes colleagues from Goddard, the University of Chicago, University of California-Los Angeles, the University of British Columbia and Brown University. The groups worked closely on the design and construction of the probe. NASA has spent $145 million on the project.

Highly skilled machinists in the University's physics department machine shop crafted part of the sensitive measuring device here in Princeton. The whole assemblage will be launched into space on a Boeing Delta II rocket.

The instrument has gone through extensive testing at Goddard, including the simulation of the extremely cold conditions of space and the tremendous vibration of a rocket launch. Final tests are continuing, even as the satellite moves to the launch pad in Florida. But with most of the work behind them, the Princeton scientists are thrilled and eager for a safe lift-off.

"It's fantastic," said Princeton physicist Lyman Page. "We're getting very excited now."

Related Links
MAP at Goddard
Princeton University
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NASA To 'Map' Big Bang Remnant To Study Early Universe
Greenbelt - June 12, 2001
The Microwave Anisotropy Probe (MAP), scheduled for launch June 30, will journey into deep space on a voyage to explore some of the deepest mysteries of the cosmos.

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