Monday, April 27, 2009 | Several crates containing what will be one of the most powerful radio telescopes in the world are now en route from Bergamo, Italy to the Port of Long Beach. Its ultimate destination is the Atacama Desert in Chile, one of the driest places on earth, and one of the best for astronomical observations.
The telescope will be fully functional in about a year. And when that time comes University of California, San Diego cosmologist Brian Keating and his colleagues will have the inside track in the race to become the first to discover what happened in the first billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a second after the universe was formed.
If Keating’s group, which includes UCSD’s Hans Paar, and researchers from UC Berkeley, as well as some from Canada, France and Japan, was to achieve this insight into what he calls the “embryonic universe,” they would not only be able to more precisely explain the origin of the universe, but also its future. Their reputations would be cemented in annals of astrophysics, and they’d be in the running for a Nobel Prize.
With the telescope, dubbed POLARBEAR (short for Polarization of Background Radiation), the scientists are trying to detect primordial gravitational waves. The existence of these waves would support the theory of inflation, which holds that right after the Big Bang, there was an incredibly rapid and violent expansion of the universe.
“It is the holy grail of cosmology,” said Keating, who works at the Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences at UCSD. “We don’t know if we’ll be able to do it — but if nature is kind to us and provides a signal that our instruments can detect, than this will have as revolutionary impact on cosmology as the discovery of the Big Bang.”
The UC group has some stiff competition. Although their branch of cosmology is small — he says there are 10 times more people in the National Basketball Association than there are people in his field — it includes some very smart, well-funded scientists.