big bang

UK universities join mission to discover the origin of the universe

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The UK has joined an international mission to try and understand the first moments of the universe just fractions of a second after it came into existence.

Six UK universities will help to deliver a major upgrade to the cosmic microwave background (CMB) experiment known as Simons Observatory (SO).

The SO is located in the high Atacama Desert in Northern Chile inside the Chajnator Science Preserve, at an altitude of 5,200 meters.

The facility, alongside the Atacama Cosmology Telescope and the Simons Array have goals to study how the universe began, what it is made of, and how it evolved to its current state.

The CMB is the trail of heat left by the Big Bang, and studying its tiny fluctuations help scientists to understand how the universe was formed and how matter was distributed shortly after the event.

Prior to the new UK contribution, SO was comprised of a single large aperture telescope and 3 small aperture telescopes.

Observations with SO promise to provide further breakthrough discoveries that will help us understand how the Big Bang led to the formation of stars and galaxies.

The small aperture telescopes are focused on searching for signatures of primordial gravitational waves.

If detected, this signal would open a unique observational window on physics at very early times, and at ultra-high energies.

The large aperture telescope will address a range of unsolved questions including the nature of neutrinos and other relativistic species, the nature of dark matter and the physics that give rise to the observed accelerated expansion of the Universe.

The international project is led by the US, supported by the Simons Foundation and the Heising-Simons Foundation, and includes 85 institutes from 13 countries.

The government-backed body UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) will provide £18m in funding for the six universities to deliver their contribution to the project.

This will see the UK leading on 2 additional telescopes to provide a major increase in the sensitivity of the facility. Under the funding, the UK will also be providing expertise in data processing and analysis.

The UK lead, professor Michael Brown, of The University of Manchester, said: “SO is poised to become the leading CMB project of the 2020s. It will address some of the most profound questions in all of science.

“With this major new funding, UK scientists will continue to play a world-leading role at the forefront of this high-profile science area.”

Dr Colin Vincent, associate director for astronomy at the Science and Technology Facilities Council, said: “This major investment by UKRI will allow UK researchers to spearhead discoveries alongside partners in this international facility, uncovering the secrets from the very dawn of time.”

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