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The BBC's Melissa Brown
"It will be a year and a half before Map's first findings are announced"
 real 56k

Saturday, 30 June, 2001, 20:19 GMT 21:19 UK
Quest for Universe's oldest light
Nasa
Map will position itself in deep space
By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

An unmanned spacecraft blasted off on Saturday on a mission to look for clues about how the Universe will end.

Lift-off went smoothly and on time at 1546 local time (1946 GMT) from Cape Canaveral, Florida. US.

The Microwave Anisotropy Probe (Map) will journey into deep space on a voyage to explore some of the mysteries of the cosmos.

With it, astronomers hope to determine the content, shape, history, and the ultimate fate of the Universe.

Launch
Smooth launch for probe
The American space agency's (Nasa) $145m (103m) spaceprobe will construct a full-sky picture of the oldest light in the Universe.

It is designed to capture the afterglow of the Big Bang, which comes to us from all directions in space and from a time when the Universe was a very different place.

Map will look for faint patterns imprinted within this afterglow that carry the answers to many mysteries such as:

  • What happened during the first instant after the Big Bang?
  • How did the galaxies form?
  • Will the Universe expand forever?
According to Professor Carlos Frenk of Durham University, UK: "This is the mission we have all been waiting for. It's better than anything we have had before. It will answer many questions and no doubt raise many more mysteries."

Unprecedented accuracy

To answer such cosmic questions, Map's observations of the Big Bang's afterglow - the so-called Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation - will be compared to the patterns predicted by various models of the Universe's evolution, in an attempt to find the right match.

Nasa
Preparing for launch
"We are tremendously excited about this mission because it will help answer basic questions that people have been asking for ages," said Dr Charles Bennett, Principal Investigator for the Map mission at Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Center, Maryland, US.

"Map's unprecedented accuracy and precision will allow us to determine the nature and destiny of the Universe."

According to the Big Bang theory, currently the only one seriously considered by astronomers, the Universe began about 14 billion years ago as an unimaginably hot and dense fog of light and exotic particles.

Since then, the Universe has expanded and cooled. Today, the entire Universe is bathed in the afterglow light from the Big Bang. The light has been travelling for about 14 billion years, thus allowing Map a look back through time to see the early Universe.


Map's unprecedented accuracy and precision will allow us to determine the nature and destiny of the Universe.

Charles Bennett, Nasa
"The cosmic microwave light is a fossil," said Professor David Wilkinson, Princeton University, Princeton, US. "Just as we can study dinosaur bones and reconstruct their lives of millions of years ago, we can probe this ancient light and reconstruct the Universe as it was about 14 billion years ago."

Map has a range of sensors that will collect radiation and measure the tiny temperature variations in different parts of the sky.

The Map mission will build on the 1992 Cosmic Background Explorer (Cobe) satellite that discovered a faint tiny pattern, or "anisotropy", in the CMB.

"Nothing has ever been built like it before," said Nasa's Dr Edward Wollack: "To measure the cosmic glow reliably to a part in a million, to millionths of a degree, has been the grand challenge. That's like measuring the weight of a cup of sand down to the resolution of a single grain."

Nasa
From the begining: The Cosmic Background Radiation
About a month after its launch on a Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral, Map will swing past the Moon, boosting its orbit to the Earth's second Lagrange Point, or L2. This is the first time a spacecraft will be in orbit around the L2 point.

It has been chosen because L2 is four times further than the Moon in the direction away from the Sun and a spacecraft there requires very little fuel to maintain its position.

"I can't wait," said Professor Frenk. "These are exciting times in astronomy and Map will be one of the most exciting."

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See also:

26 Apr 00 | Sci/Tech
Universe 'proven flat'
12 May 00 | Sci/Tech
Close-up on the early Universe
10 Apr 01 | Sci/Tech
Before the Big Bang
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