New Sensors to Test Inflationary Universe Theory

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has teamed up with Princeton University, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the University of Chicago to create new sensors capable of detecting much weaker microwaves than those captured by any existing sensors. The new sensors will be used in experiments to measure the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), a very weak background energy believed to be a remnant of the Big Bang.
Micrograph of prototype microwave detector (Credit: NIST)
Micrograph of prototype microwave detector
(Credit: NIST)

The novel sensors are not only used to detect the CMB, but will also attempt to measure the polarization of the microwaves, specifically looking for a certain type of polarization called B-Mode polarization. If found, such polarization would prove that cosmic inflation occurred immediately after the Big Bang. Such inflation would emit gravitational waves, which will cause the polarization of the CMB.

Most recent information on the CMB was gathered by the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) and its successor, the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP). These probes pushed our understanding of the early universe further immensely and still continue to be of use to astronomers. However, they do not have the resolution necessary to detect the B-Mode polarization. By deploying the new NIST sensors on telescopes, scientists should finally be able to detect the B-Mode polarization if it exists.

The sensors work by capturing microwaves and using polarized channels to shunt their energy toward heat detectors at the edge of the transition state between conductivity and superconductivity, at which there is no resistance. When bumped out of this transition state by the application of heat from detected microwaves, the resulting resistance is a very sensitive thermometer that can measure the signal in each of the two polarized directions. This allows scientists to determine the net polarization of the waves.

In addition to using the transition state between conductivity and superconductivity to increase detector sensitivity, the new sensors are free of moving parts and other traditional sources of systemic errors like vibrations or a sensitivity to magnetic or electronic interference. New signal processing and error detection models are also being developed to improve data interpretation.

In addition to putting the cosmic inflation theory to test, scientists say the new sensors could prove to be instrumental in exploring various string theories and unified theories of physics, adding that they could also be used to verify compliance with nuclear non-proliferation treaties and may even have applications in medical imaging.

TFOT has previously reported on a variety of other new and upcoming astronomical observatories including the High-Resolution Soft X-Ray Spectrometer (SXS) designed to explore dark matter and examine the evolution of galaxies, the underwater Antares neutrino telescope, the Herschel Space Observatory designed to observe the far infrared and sub-millimeter wavelengths, the Giant Magellan Telescope designed to capture images ten times sharper than those taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, and the James Webb Space Telescope built to replace the aging Hubble Space Telescope.

Read more about the novel NIST sensors in this NIST press release.

Icon image credit: NASA

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