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$40 Million Grant Establishes Simons Observatory, a New Investigation into the Formation of the Early Universe

Media contacts:  Evan Lerner at 215-573-6604 or elerner@upenn.edu

Kim McDonald at 858-534-7572 or kmcdonald@ucsd.edu

Anastasia Greenebaum at 646-654-0066 or agreenebaum@simonsfoundation.org

The Simons Foundation has awarded a $38.4 million grant to establish the Simons Observatory, a new astronomy facility in Chile’s Atacama Desert that will merge and expand existing efforts to explore the evolution of the universe from its earliest moments to today. An additional $1.7 million of support is being provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation. The project is a collaboration among Princeton University, The University of California at San Diego, The University of California at Berkeley, The University of Pennsylvania, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, all of which are also providing financial support.

This project will investigate cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation to better understand the physics of the Big Bang, the nature of dark energy and dark matter, the properties of neutrinos, and the formation of structure in the universe.

 “A key target of this observatory is the earliest moments in the history of the universe,” said Mark Devlin, a cosmologist at the University of Pennsylvania and the current project spokesperson. “While patterns that we see in the microwave sky are a picture of the structure of the universe 380,000 years after the Big Bang, we believe that some of these patterns were generated much earlier, by gravitational waves produced in the first moments of the universe’s expansion. By measuring how the gravitational waves affect electrons and matter 380,000 years after the big bang we are observing fossils from the very, very early universe.”

The extraordinarily rapid expansion of space during “inflation,” an epoch posited in the most popular cosmological theory, generated gravitational waves. These would have induced a very small, but characteristic polarization pattern in the CMB at radio wavelengths that can be detected by specially designed telescopes and cameras.  

A detection of this type of signal, known as “B-mode polarization,” would measure the energy scale associated with inflation, which could be as much as a trillion times higher than the energy accessible in the largest particle accelerators. Such a detection could also provide evidence for a link between quantum mechanics and gravity.  Understanding the link between these two powerful theories is the focus of string theorists and others studying fundamental physics.

“The generosity of this award is unprecedented in our field, and will enable a major leap in scientific capability” said University of California San Diego astrophysicist Brian Keating, the current Project Director. “People are used to thinking about mega- or giga-pixel detectors in optical telescopes, but for signals in the microwave range 10,000 pixels is a lot. What we’re trying to do — the real revolution here — is to pave the way to increase our pixels number by more than an order of magnitude.”

In addition to searching for B-mode polarization, the Simons Observatory will study how the light from the CMB is deflected by the intervening structure in the universe. These measurements will provide unique insights into basic questions including the masses of the neutrinos, the nature of dark energy and dark matter and the physics that governed the formation of cosmic structure as the universe evolved after the big bang.

The Simons Observatory will also identify thousands of clusters of galaxies, the largest gravitationally bound objects in the universe. Where and when these massive objects formed is a strong function of the same set of cosmological parameters, providing an independent check of their values.

The Simons Observatory is designed to be an important step toward an ultimate experiment aimed at extracting the full measure of cosmological information in the cosmic microwave background fluctuations accessible from the ground. This next-generation experiment (called CMB-S4) builds on years of support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and increasing support from the Department of Energy (DOE). It is envisioned to have telescopes at multiple sites and draw together a broad community of experts from the U.S. and abroad. The DOE recently announced its intent to participate in CMB-S4, and the Atacama site in Chile has already been identified as a promising location. The Simons Foundation funding will help develop it for that role.

The site in Chile is located in the Parque Astronómico, which is administered by the Comisión Nacional de Investigación Científica y Tecnológica (CONICYT).  Since 1998, US investigators and the NSF have worked with Chilean scientists, the University of Chile, and CONICYT to locate multiple projects at this high, dry site to study the CMB. 

Simons Foundation

The Simons Foundation’s mission is to advance the frontiers of research in mathematics and the basic sciences. Its Mathematics and Physical Sciences (MPS) division provides funding for individuals, institutions and science infrastructure in these areas. Co-founded in New York City by Jim and Marilyn Simons, the foundation celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2014.

The Heising-Simons Foundation

The Heising-Simons Foundation is a family foundation located in Los Altos, California, dedicated to advancing sustainable solutions in the environment, supporting groundbreaking research in science, and enhancing the education for the nation's youngest learners. More at http://www.heisingsimons.org.

20th April 2016