News

UC San Diego Signs On to Study Cosmos with Massive New Telescope in South America

The Simons Array

A rendering of the unique and powerful radio telescope. Image courtesy of VERTEX ANTENNENTECHNIK.

On behalf of collaborators at institutions worldwide, the University of California San Diego recently signed a contract for the design and construction of a state-of-the-art millimeter wave telescope for the Simons Observatory. The telescope is the first of several which will be located in the high Atacama Desert of Northern Chile in 2020. At an elevation of 5,200 meters—or 17,000 feet—above sea level, it’s an ideal location to survey the universe. As part of the 35 institutions comprising the Simons Observatory, UC San Diego Department of Physics’ Professor Brian Keating and Assistant Professor Kam Arnold will have access to this instrument to study the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB).

Electromagnetic radiation left over from an early stage of the universe, CMB dates to around 400,000 years after the universe began, in the “Big Bang” cosmology. Sometimes referred to as "relic radiation,” CMB is important to study because it is the most ancient light there is, a pristine fossil of the earliest moments of cosmic time. Keating, Arnold and their nearly 200 colleagues hope to fully mine this cosmic treasure trove—from its broadest features to its finest details.

“The Big Bang Theory is not only a popular television show, it’s also the dominant cosmological paradigm according to our best models for the early universe,” said Keating, director of the Simons Observatory and also an astrophysicist at UC San Diego's Center for Astrophysics & Space Sciences. “But we still don’t know all of its secrets: What “banged”? Are there other universes, now, in addition to ours? Seeking answers to these questions is what drives us."

According to Keating, scientists from the Simons Observatory team, including many undergraduates and graduate students from UC San Diego, will travel to the high Chilean desert site to gather data then analyze it over the course of several years.

“This represents an amazing opportunity for UC San Diego scientists—both new and seasoned—to not only experience science at the cutting edge but also help create it, eventually allowing us to understand how our universe came into existence and what the future may hold for all of us who inhabit it,” Keating said. “We are very fortunate to be partners with so many talented scientists around the world.”

The new telescope will be designed and integrated by Vertex Antennentechnik GmbH. The enormous telescope will consist of two high-precision reflective mirrors with a 6-meter, or nearly 20-foot, diameter. The design will allow for a wide, clear field-of-view, with the ability to track objects across the sky with an accuracy less than 2 arc seconds—a unit of angular scientific measurement roughly the size subtended by a penny seen across 21 football fields. The telescope will be able to observe wavelengths of 1 to 15 millimeters, or .04 to .6 inches, where the faint cosmic signals are most prominent.

“This telescope will truly be state-of-the-art, having extremely high sensitivity coupled with the exquisitely fine angular resolution,” explained Keating. “When the telescope begins operations it essentially will be the most powerful cosmological instrument of its kind the moment it turns on.”

The project is a major component of the Simons Observatory which aims to address questions about the origins of the universe—its contents, structures, the role of gravity and the nature of dark energy. The Simons Observatory is supported by the Simons Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, UC San Diego, UC Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University and University of Michigan. According to Keating, the Simons Foundation has long supported his and Arnold’s research since it funded the Simons Array, a precursor to the Simons Observatory in 2012.

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 exists to support basic — or discovery-driven — scientific research undertaken in the pursuit of understanding the phenomena of our world.

The Department of Physics is part of the Division of Physical Sciences at UC San Diego. The department is ranked #16 for best graduate programs according to U.S. News and World Report. 

14th December 2017 - By Cynthia Dillon

New Milestone

The Observatory reaches a major milestone

On October 11, 2017 Simons Observatory reached a major milestone. On this day, we signed a contract with Vertex, the company which will build the Simons Observatory Large Aperture Telescope. This is a very exciting time for everyone in the Simons Observatory Collaboration!

11th October 2017

The Simons Array

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

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. 

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

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