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UBC Reports | Vol. 47 | No. 10 | June 14, 2001

NASA satellite mission to probe universe's mysteries

Physics Prof. Mark Halpern is the lone Canadian on 13-member research team

by Don Wells staff writer

Physics and Astronomy Assoc. Prof. Mark Halpern will have his eyes on the skies June 30. That's the launch date for a satellite mission that hopes to answer fundamental questions about the origin, content and fate of the universe.

A rocket will carry the Microwave Anisotropy Probe (MAP) satellite on a three-month journey into orbit approximately 1.5 million kilometres from Earth.

"There is a certain thrill about creating something that will remain intact for thousands of years after the Great Wall of China has crumbled," says Halpern, the lone Canadian in a 13-member team led by the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) Goddard Space Flight Centre in partnership with Princeton University.

The satellite will orbit for two years during which time it will measure the properties of cosmic background radiation over the full sky. More specifically, MAP will reach into deep space and record temperature variations so small that, if expressed as height variation, would be equivalent to under an inch on a mile-high plateau.

Astronomers believe that cosmic background radiation -- the faint glow that bathes the universe -- was emitted roughly 300,000 years after the Big Bang.

In effect, MAP will look back in time as it measures conditions in a source of light that has taken 13 billion years to reach earth. By way of comparison, light emitted from the sun reaches earth in about eight minutes.

The MAP project follows on the mission by NASA's Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite in the early '90s, which discovered subtle variations in the otherwise remarkably uniform early universe that provided clues about its origin.

MAP's ability to more precisely measure temperature variations will enable it to produce a much more detailed picture of the early universe than COBE did.

The information will assist the researchers to determine the shape of the universe, how and when galaxies were formed, and if the universe will expand forever or collapse, Halpern says.

A third possibility, the one most widely supported by astronomers, is that the universe is in a delicately balanced state, on a cusp between expanding forever and collapsing.

As enthused as Halpern is about solving the greatest mysteries of cosmology, he is equally interested in what the answers will reveal about fundamental physics.

"Not only are we going to be able to tell which of these theories is true, but we will also be able to learn about the underlying physics that caused our universe to expand the way it has," says Halpern. "Physics has to explain this in order to be complete."

The mission is under the direction of principal investigator Charles L. Bennett of the Goddard Space Flight Centre, under the scientific supervision of a team from universities that includes Brown University, UCLA and the University of Chicago.


Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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