Friday, September 26, 2014

SPIDER: 'Spacecraft' seeks traces of the early universe over Antartica

Constructed primarily in Princeton's Jadwin Hall, SPIDER is a stratospheric spacecraft that in December will begin a 20-day orbit in Earth's stratosphere at an altitude of roughly 110,000 feet.

During that period, SPIDER's six large cameras will look for the pattern, or polarization, of gravitational waves produced by the fluctuation of energy and density that resulted from the Big Bang.

These waves, explained William Jones a Princeton University assistant professor of physics, are a "statistically unique fingerprint" that can be traced back to the beginning of the universe.

Many astronomical instruments measure various characteristics of this fingerprint, SPIDER is designed to characterize the "shape" of it, said Jones, who is the project's principal investigator.

"The ultimate goal of SPIDER is to see to what extent we can identify a very characteristic feature in that polarization that's expected to come from the earliest stages of the evolutionary growth of our universe," Jones said.

"There's a very particular pattern than can be generated only by something like a gravitational wave propagating through the surface of the cosmic microwave background [which is the glow of the heat left over from the Big Bang]," Jones said.

"That is a very particular pattern commonly referred to as a 'pinwheel' pattern on the sky. It's that particular pinwheel pattern that we're really after."

SPIDER, which used to be an acronym, but now is the project's formal name, is a multi-institutional project funded largely by a grant from NASA, as well as the David and Lucille Packard Foundation.

In addition to Princeton, the primary institutions involved are the University of Toronto; Case Western Reserve University; the California Institute of Technology and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a NASA-funded research center managed by Caltech; and the University of British Columbia.

The project was proposed in 2006 while Jones, who joined Princeton's faculty in 2008, was a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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