On Sunday night, at a ceremony replete with stars in Palo Alto, a team of scientists received a $ 3 million Breakthrough Award in Fundamental Physics designed to recognize physicists "working on the deepest mysteries of the Universe" . The main prize went to the team behind a project called Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe. That spacecraft measured what is called the Cosmic Microwave Background, consolidating what scientists know about the age of the universe and the things that make it up. But what the hell does all that mean?
The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, dubbed WMAP, is a spacecraft that was launched in 2001. It moved away from the sun, toward the opposite side of Earth's orbit, and spent about nine years searching for small changes in temperature throughout the universe. "Through the universe" here is not poetry: WMAP looked at the oldest light, as far as human instruments can see.
"The universe is expanding into the future," David Spergel, one of the scientists behind the project, told Scientific American in a video explaining the work of WMAP.
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The result is the photograph dubbed the "baby" of the image universe, published just one year after the satellite began to take action The darker colors, such as blue, represent the coldest spots, the brightest colors, such as red, represent the hottest spots, although there is only a fraction of a degree of difference between the two.
The cosmic microwave background, nicknamed the "baby photo" "of the universe NASA / WMAP Science Team
Scientists can use these measures to understand the deep-seated characteristics of the universe, because as the universe expands, It cools due to the intense heat that marked the Big Bang. That means that, when the universe is a little warmer, it expands just one hair less and has more photons (light particles). Spergel calls this "fossil light".
Where it is a little colder, the universe contains more dark matter and dark energy. Scientists still do not understand what dark energy or dark matter is, but now they know, thanks to WMAP measurements, that normal matter makes up only a small portion, less than 5 percent, of the universe, and that seeing how dark matter and dark energy distort the expansion of the universe, it is our best bet to understand it.
"So, I think the big surprise for me with the microwave background data is twofold: one, the universe is simple, the other that the universe is strange," said Spergel Scientific American .
The WMAP measurements have been followed by a European satellite called Planck, which has refined some of the measurements and detected some discrepancies in scientists' theories about the early universe.
And the scientists behind WMAP honored at the ceremony are working on other instruments that will continue to address the mysteries of the universe. Charles Bennett, a physicist at Johns Hopkins University, is working on a new telescope called Cosmology Large Angular Scale Surveyor to push our universe timeline further back in time. Gary Hinshaw, a physicist at the University of British Columbia, is working on the construction of new radio telescopes to address some of the same questions. A third collaborator, physicist Lyman Page, Jr., of Princeton University, is working on another new instrument, called the Atacama Cosmology Telescope, to take even more high-resolution measurements of the same discrepancies that WMAP measured.