Saturday, May 03, 2008

Searching for dark energy... at the South Pole

Not all experimental astrophysical studies require elaborate, incredibly expensive equipment deployed at the L2 Sun-Earth Lagrangian point, like WMAP. A lot can be done with a microwave antenna just 10 meters across... if it's located at the South Pole.

Cosmologists Probe Mystery Of Dark Energy With South Pole Telescope
What can the SPT tell us about the past and future of dark energy? John E. Carlstrom, director of KICP and the S. Chandrasekhar Distinguished Professor in Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago, says the telescope is examining clusters of galaxies to learn what role dark energy played in their evolution. “One of the important things we need to learn about dark energy is what influence it has had on structure,” Carlstrom says. If scientists can learn how the density of clusters changed over time, he says they can determine “constraints on the equation of state of dark energy.” That is, they can get a more precise idea of whether dark energy is taking us toward a big rip, a big crunch or something in between.

The telescope is looking specifically for the Sunyaev-Zel’dovich (SZ) effect, a distortion of the CMB radiation caused by the highly energized gas of galaxy clusters. When photons originating from the CMB traverse the clusters, they interact with electrons and tend to scatter, creating slight variations in temperature -- shadows against the microwave background – that the SPT detects with a battery of 1,000 sensors chilled to near absolute zero.

The SPT will survey about a fifth of the entire southern sky and is expected to detect thousands of clusters. Analyzing follow-up data from optical telescopes, the scientists will determine the mass, distance and age of the clusters. They will then map the clusters in space and time to see how their density and structure evolved over billions of years under the competing pulls of gravity and dark energy. They hope to learn how much power dark energy exerted in the early universe, how it evolved to dominate the universe now, and by extension, how much power it may wield in the future.

But the SPT isn't adapted only for studies of dark energy. As a sensitive microwave telescope, it can also make detailed observations of the cosmic microwave background, much as WMAP does.
The SPT’s activity will not end with this survey of galaxy clusters. Another project in the works will use the telescope to scan the CMB for tiny fluctuations in its polarization. Like visible light, the microwave radiation from the Big Bang has waves moving in electromagnetic fields at different angles, some up-and-down and other side-to-side. Observations with another South Pole instrument, the degree angular scale interferometer (DASI), have confirmed that the CMB is polarized as expected from prevailing theories about the physics of the Big Bang. Researchers now want to use the more sensitive SPT to look for minute variations in the CMB polarization that mark the presence of huge gravity waves.

Stephan Meyer, associate director of KICP and Professor in Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago, says these waves are “a reasonable fraction of the size of the universe” in length and would have been generated in the “inflationary epoch” of the Big Bang. This was the time when the universe was just 10-50 seconds old and matter had not yet coalesced into neutrons and protons. “We don’t really understand the physics of that era,” Meyer says. A new set of sensors, able to detect polarization as well as heat, is being built by the University of Chicago and should be ready for installation on the SPT by the austral summer (the northern winter) of 2009-10.

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