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Sensor to probe deep into the 'Big Bang'

Posted: 06 May 2009     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:polarisation detectors  Superstring Theory  cosmic inflation 

Super-sensitive polarisation detectors developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and university partners will seek to measure whether the universe is forever expanding.

Micrograph of a prototype detector that will be used to seek B-mode polarisation.

The new sensor was developed in collaboration with scientists at Princeton University, the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of Chicago and announced during the annual meeting of the American Physical Society.

A theory called cosmic inflation could may be confirmed during an experiment to be held in 2010 in the Chilean desert. The powerful NIST sensors will be mounted on a special telescope in a converted shipping container.

An array of more than 1,000 of the new sensors, which measure B-mode polarisation in the cosmic microwave background (CMB), will be mounted in monolithic arrays inside cryogenically-cooled telescopic cameras. If the inflation theory is finally confirmed, the sensors will then be used by NIST for civilian uses such as reducing glare in next-generation terahertz imaging systems that can see through the thick metal of shipping containers to detect hidden contraband.

Just as polarised sunglasses reduce glare, the sensitive microwave polarisation sensing chips should be able to sharpen millimetre-wavelength (terahertz frequency) images.

In the 2010 experiment, the B-mode polarisation detectors will seek to profile how rapid inflation of the universe occurred in the first instant after the Big Bang at the beginning of the universe. Two arrow-shaped antennas in the middle of the detector will measure cosmic microwave radiation at two different polarisation directions at 145 GHz. The amount of polarisation will be converted to heat by transition-edge sensors that use a superconducting metal that changes resistance in response to heat.

The remote location of the test, the no-moving-parts design and advanced signal processing and error correction algorithms are designed to remove errors from vibrations and magnetic interference that have foiled previous attempts at measuring the polarisation of the CMB. It is thought that the CMB was created 1370 crore (13.7 billion) years ago when the Big Bang created temperatures 1000 crore (10 billion) times hotter than the world's most powerful particle collider—the Large Hadron Collider.

Besides attempting to confirm the inflation theory, whereby gravitational waves created during the Big Bang continue to leave telltale polarisation in cosmic background radiation, the experiment could also provide insights into different unified theories of physics such as Superstring Theory. The theory maintains that the universe is based on an underlying vibrations from super-symmetric strings.

- R. Colin Johnson
EE Times

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