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NSF PR 00-25 - April 26, 2000
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Cosmologists Reveal First Detailed Images of Early
Map of cosmic microwave background
Credit: produced by BOOMERANG project
Map of Antarctica showing the track
of the balloon flight.
Select image for larger version
With Mt. Erebus, a dormant volcano, in
the background, the Boomerang Telescope
is readied for launch on its 10-day
flight around Antarctica.
The Long Duration Balloon (LDB) facility
at Williams Field near McMurdo Station,
Photo Credit: Peter West.
An international team of cosmologists has released
the first detailed images of the universe in its infancy.
The images reveal the structure that existed in the
universe when it was a tiny fraction of its current
age and 1,000 times smaller and hotter than it is
today. Detailed analysis of the images is already
shedding light on some of cosmology's outstanding
mysteries -- the nature of the matter and energy that
dominate intergalactic space and whether space is
"curved" or "flat."
The project, dubbed BOOMERANG (Balloon Observations
of Millimetric Extragalactic Radiation and Geophysics),
obtained the images using an extremely sensitive telescope
suspended from a balloon that circumnavigated the
Antarctic in late 1998. The balloon carried the telescope
at an altitude of almost 37 kilometers (120,000 feet)
for 10-1/2 days. The results will be published in
the April 27 issue of Nature.
Today, the universe is filled with galaxies and clusters
of galaxies. But 12-15 billion years ago, following
the Big Bang, the universe was very smooth, incredibly
hot and dense. The intense heat that filled the embryonic
universe is still detectable today as a faint glow
of microwave radiation that is visible in all directions.
This radiation is known as the cosmic microwave background
Since the CMB was first discovered by a ground-based
radio telescope in 1965, scientists have eagerly sought
to obtain high-resolution images of this radiation.
NASA's Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite
discovered the first evidence for structures, or spatial
variations, in the CMB in 1991.
The BOOMERANG images are the first to bring the CMB
into sharp focus. The images reveal hundreds of complex
regions that are visible as tiny variations -- typically
only 100-millionths of a degree Celsius (0.0001 C)
-- in the temperature of the CMB. The complex patterns
visible in the images confirm predictions of the patterns
that would result from sound waves racing through
the early universe, creating the structures that by
now have evolved into giant clusters and super-clusters
"The structures in these images predate the first star
or galaxy in the universe," said U.S. team leader
Andrew Lange of the California Institute of Technology.
"It is an incredible triumph of modern cosmology to
have predicted their basic form so accurately."
Italian team leader Paolo deBernardis of the University
of Rome La Sapienza added: "It is really exciting
to be able to see some of the fundamental structures
of the universe in their embryonic state. The light
we have detected from them has traveled across the
entire universe before reaching us, and we are perfectly
able to distinguish it from the light generated in
our own galaxy."
The BOOMERANG images cover about three percent of the
sky. The team's analysis of the size of the structures
in the CMB has produced the most precise measurements
to date of the geometry of space-time, which strongly
indicate that the geometry of the universe is flat,
not curved. This result is in agreement with a fundamental
prediction of the "inflationary" theory of the universe.
This theory hypothesizes that the entire universe
grew from a tiny subatomic region during a period
of violent expansion that occurred a split second
after the Big Bang. The enormous expansion would have
stretched the geometry of space until it was flat.
NASA's National Scientific Balloon Facility was instrumental
in flying the giant helium balloon that carried the
instruments above the earth's atmosphere. The National
Science Foundation (NSF), which provides logistic
support for all U.S. scientific operations in Antarctica,
facilitated the launch near McMurdo Station and recovery
of the payload after the flight. The constant sunshine
and prevailing winds at high altitudes in Antarctica
were essential to maintaining a stable long-duration
balloon flight for the BOOMERANG project. The balloon,
with a volume of 800,000 cubic meters (28 million
cubic feet), carried the two-ton telescope 8,000 km
(5,000 miles) in 10 1/2 days and landed within 50
km (31 miles) of its launch site.
The 36 team members are from 16 universities and organizations
in Canada, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United
States. Primary support for the BOOMERANG project
comes from NSF and NASA in the United States; the
Italian Space Agency, Italian Antarctic Research Programme
and the University of Rome La Sapienza in Italy; and
the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council
in the United Kingdom. The Department of Energy's
National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center
provided supercomputing support in the United States.
For more information and images on BOOMERANG, see:
For background information on scientific research in
See also: Fact
Sheet on Astrophysics in Antarctica