I LOVE science and I LOVE NASA, and yes, I love it so much I would marry it. Science is wonderful because it uses terms like 100 tillion trillion times, I cannot even begin to comprehend that number, let alone conceive how the Universe can expand that many times in less than a nanosecond. My mind is blown…
It has long been believed that the Universe expanded quickly (understatement) after the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago. The cosmic microwave background is supporting evidence of this explosion; when the Universe, a tightly packed mass of energy, exploded spreading radiation and light outward, it created the cosmic microwave background (CMB). While the CMB is detected throughout the Universe, it only insinuates that it was created through a rapid expansion. Until recently, there has been no direct evidence of this phenomenon scientists call inflation.
The science and technology involved in this discovery is over my head, but I’ll try to summarize. The violent expansion of the Universe created large quantum fluctuations, like waves that distort space and time, expanding the Universe outwards. Scientists have been aware of density waves created by inflation, but were so far unable to prove the existence of these gravitational waves. Large celestial bodies create gravitational waves however, and of most interest are primordial gravitational waves that would have stemmed from inflation. These waves leave a pattern called B-mode polarization created by light scattered off particles in the cosmic microwave background. Detecting these signals gives us direct evidence of the very force that rapidly expanded our Universe.
If that wasn’t trekky enough for you, the successful detection of B-mode polarization is due in part to superconductors, ya super conductors. Next thing you know we are going to have warp cores and all will be right with the world, but I digress. 512 of these superconductors are used on the BICEP2 telescope at the North Pole operating at very low temperatures, just above absolute zero, where electrical currents flow freely. All of these conditions are necessary to detect the very faint B-mode signals. The experiment has been running since 2006, thanks to the involvement of JPL, University of Minnesota, Caltech, Stanford, Harvard and Cambridge along with instruments from NASA and the National Science Foundation. Astronomers have continued to improve the technology with their new experiment by upping the ante to 2,560 detectors, and increasing processing speeds.
A discovery like this peels back another layer in the great mystery that is the origin of our Universe and the processes that blew it apart. With confirmation of these theories, astronomers and scientists can begin to better understand why and how inflation occurred, peeling back yet another layer.