UBC Reports | Vol. 47 | No. 10 | June
NASA satellite mission to probe universe's mysteries
Physics Prof. Mark Halpern is the lone Canadian on 13-member
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
"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.