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WMAP Detects Universes Oldest Light

Using new data compiled by NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, the scientists said they derived the evidence for inflation from what amounts to the oldest light in creation.
by Phil Berardelli
SpaceDaily US Editor
Greenbelt MD (SPX) Mar 16, 2006
Scientists said Thursday they have compiled the best evidence yet that the phenomenon called inflation occurred during an astoundingly brief interval about 13.7 billion years ago, growing the universe's three-dimensional space from the size of a marble to astronomical dimensions in less than a trillionth of a second.

Using new data compiled by NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, the scientists said they derived the evidence for inflation from what amounts to the oldest light in creation - an ultra-faint afterglow of primordial radiation that occurred just after the Big Bang and still permeates the universe at a temperature only a tiny fraction of a degree above absolute zero.

The WMAP data, accumulated over three years, also show distinct variations in the radiation that correspond exactly to the areas of the universe most populated with galaxies, and to the vast empty areas between galaxy clusters with the spots of relatively warm and bright radiation matching the densest zones of galactic activity.

"WMAP measures the light in the way a geologist would examine a fossil for clues of the past," principal investigator Charles Bennett of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore told reporters at a briefing on the findings. "We have put inflation to a rigorous new test," Bennett said, "and the data favor inflation."

Inflation theory holds that sub-microscopic quantum fluctuations occurred, Bennett said, "in an otherwise astonishingly empty sea of nothingness (and) suddenly inflated in the blink of an eye to become the entire universe that we see today."

The NASA satellite, which orbits the Sun about 1 million miles farther out than Earth, began gathering data on the cosmic background temperature five years ago, but at first the only radiation WMAP's instruments could detect came from the first stars, which ignited a few hundred million years after the Big Bang.

Eventually, the satellite's operating temperature stabilized, and for the past three years researchers have used the probe's instruments to pierce what they call the "fog" of light from the first stars which ignited about 400 million years ago - and view the radiation created during the inflationary instant at the universe's very beginning. They did so by applying a type of polarizing filter, which allowed detection of radiation about a hundred times weaker than the first round of signals.

"Imagine that you put a Slinky on the floor, stretch it out, and shake it horizontally," said team member Lyman Page of Princeton University in New Jersey. WMAP can detect the equivalent of those long-wavelength vibrations, measuring "the glare of the afterglow," he said, in signals of only one three-millionths of a degree Celsius.

Among other WMAP findings, the researchers said the data refute the contention by some theorists that the brighter radiation should correspond to features of all sizes. Instead, they discovered that the brightness increases as the size of features increase - on scales of 100-million to 1-billion light-years, versus scales smaller than 100-million light-years.

In addition, the team said the data support the estimate that the universe comprises only 4 percent ordinary matter, another 22 percent the as-yet-unidentified dark matter, and 74 percent the even-more-mysterious dark energy.

For the past 5-billion years, dark energy has been causing what might be called a Little Bang for the universe an expansion that is far gentler than the original inflationary instant 13.7-billion years ago.

"In a sentence, the observations are spectacular and the conclusions are stunning," said Brian Greene of Columbia University in New York City, who joined the WMAP team at the briefing. "It's truly inspiring and the data itself supports something equally if not more gratifying. A major question that people have asked for decades is: Where do stars and galaxies come from (and) where does structure in the universe come from? And WMAP's data support the idea that quantum fluctuations jitters of quantum uncertainty are the answer."

He said these jitters created zones of un-homogeneity that grew over time and gave rise to tiny temperature variations, which in turn created substantial variations in the clustering of matter that eventually became the galaxies and galactic clusters.

"WMAP data support the notion that galaxies are nothing but quantum mechanics writ large across the sky," Greene said. "To me, this is one of the marvels of the modern scientific age."

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