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The BICEP2 telescope is located near the South Pole. It scans cosmic background radiation to peer into the earliest moments of the universe.

New view of the Big Bang takes scientists closer to the birth of the universe

by James Risley
Mar 18, 2014

Imagine a curtain on a stage. The audience can't see through it, but when an actor walks behind it, a breeze might rustle the curtain and the audience might notice. A telescope with a view of deep space is able to measure extremely small fluctuations caused by early gravitational waves in the cosmic background radiation curtain and scientists are analyzing that data to see beyond the curtain. 

Data from Harvard University's Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization (BICEP2) telescope gives scientists a clearer view of what happened in the first moments of the universe - about a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of the first ever second. The newest discovery clarifies earlier images we had of the cosmic background radiation, allowing scientists to see farther back into the Big Bang.

Scientists from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics released the data from the BICEP2 telescope, located near the South Pole, on Monday. These results build on decades of analysis of the cosmic background radiation, a curtain of light left over from the Big Bang.

Shane Larson, a research associate professor at Northwestern University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics, detailed what the results mean.

“What BICEP is looking at is called the cosmic microwave background,” he said. “It is a relic of radiation that emerged from the very first moments after all of the crazy subatomic particles that were created in the Big Bang were able to bind together and make atoms for the first time. That is as far back into the universe that we can see with ordinary telescopes.”

“These are the moments when the universe is sorting itself out,” Larson said.

Scientists have been able to see fluctuations in the cosmic background radiation before, but never at this level. Below is a timeline detailing the exploration of the Big Bang: