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New tool designed to track the birth of the universe

The work on the detectors is being undertaken at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory. The first step is to develop the cleanroom, which will function as a laboratory for constructing the parts needed for the ultra-sensitive detectors. Other detectors will also be assembled within the facility, including those designed for improved X-ray research. The detectors of interest, however, are for the South Pole Telescope to examine for light from the early days of the universe.

A cleanroom (which is one word, rather than ‘clean room’) is an especially designed space where particulates are minimized. With the development of very sensitive detectors, even the smallest speck of dust can cause harm. This means clean air is very important and this is achieved through air passing through ultra-low penetrating air filters; having rapid air movement and air change rates; and ensuing that the cleanroom is at a higher pressure relative to adjacent areas.

The South Pole Telescope is a 10 meter diameter telescope positioned at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station, Antarctica. The telescope undertakes observations in the microwave, millimeter-wave, and submillimeter-wave regions of the electromagnetic spectrum. The primary use is to detect faint emissions in space from the cosmic microwave background. The telescope has been used so far to detect distant, massive, clusters of galaxies. The new detector is designed to improve the accuracy of detection for the first signs of emerging light from what is thought to be the point of the universe’s origin.

The South Pole Telescope’s new detector will be used to search for light waves that have traveled throughout the universe since the moments after the Big Bang. This type of light is referred to as Cosmic Microwave Background radiation and it will have been travelling for almost 14 billion years (the current estimate to the probable age of the universe). Assessing this light is highly complex because of interference from other galaxies and dark matter.

The detectors are manufactured from superconductors, which are highly sensitive materials. The conductors have their properties altered when temperature is raised. The new detectors will be designed so they react to the specific frequencies needed to detect the signature of the Cosmic Microwave Background. This is a slow and delicate process, requiring the laying down of multiple coatings just a few nanometers thick. The project is expected to be completed in mid-2017.

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Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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