Analyzing remnants of light left over from the Big Bang with data beamed to Earth from an observatory nearly one million miles in space, a University of Miami physicist will help answer important questions about the origins of the universe and how it will continue to evolve.
As a middle school student growing up in Columbus, Ohio, Kevin Huffenberger developed a keen interest in cosmology, reading books by the British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and learning all he could about black holes, distant galaxies, and the nature of time.
But it was one topic, in particular, that captured his curiosity: how the universe developed after the Big Bang.
Today, as a University of Miami physicist, Huffenberger is still enthralled with how the universe came to be, only now he is part of a multinational endeavor that could very well provide definitive answers about its origin, development, and continued evolution.
He is one of the many scientists analyzing data from Planck, a European Space Agency (ESA) observatory nearly one million miles from Earth that will survey and map the entire sky until early 2012, taking precise measurements of fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background (CMB)—or ancient light from the fireball out of which the universe sprang into existence some 13.7 billion years ago.
“It’s always been part of our natural human curiosity to wonder where the universe around us came from,” says Huffenberger, an assistant professor of physics in UM’s College of Arts and Sciences. “This project will give us insight into that.”
Planck will specifically measure fluctuations in the CMB, which is encoded with a treasure trove of information from the hot, primordial soup of particles that eventually became our universe. With those measurements, scientists will get the clearest picture yet of the early universe, when it was a mere 380,000 years old.
The data will help them determine the large-scale properties of the universe; investigate the amount of dark matter, a mysterious, invisible substance scientists assume exists because of gravitational effects on visible matter; probe the properties of dark energy, which accounts for as much as 73 percent of the total matter-energy budget of the universe; find out what triggered the rapid expansion of the universe; study the origin of structures (galaxies, clusters of galaxies, and large voids); map, for the first time, the magnetic field spread throughout our own Milky Way; and observe distant galaxies and determine how they form stars.
“It will provide a data set that’s unprecedented in quality and scope,” explains Huffenberger, whose primary research is in developing reliable analysis techniques used in current and future experiments that measure the CMB. He started working on the Planck project when he was a postdoctoral researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a partner in the mission, and he credits his undergraduate research in neutron stars and black holes as the most influential experience that led him to pursue an academic career in physics.
The Planck satellite is named for Max Planck, the German Nobel laureate who was one of the early pioneers in quantum mechanics. Equipped with a powerful telescope, it blasted off from ESA’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, in May 2009, carrying the hopes of Huffenberger and the hundreds of other scientists, engineers, physicists, and astronomers who are collaborating on the project.
Huffenberger describes his role in the mission as small but important. He developed a portion of the data processing pipeline that calibrates the Planck telescope’s response to fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background.
He will also study and analyze data from far-away galaxies, which emit radiation like the Milky Way’s “but are so small and distant that their contribution could be mistaken for additional small-scale fluctuations, if not properly accounted for,” he explains.
And with UM postdoctoral associate Jan Kratochvil, he will study slight distortions in the microwave background measured by Planck. “As the light from the Big Bang travels to us, it is deflected by the gravitational attraction from matter it passes near,” says Huffenberger. “By looking for certain patterns in these deflections, we can learn about the distribution of matter as the universe developed from the Big Bang to the present day.”
Planck recently transmitted its first all-sky image, showing in one expansive view our own Milky Way galaxy and the universe as it existed 380,000 years after the Big Bang.
Scientists are using some of the fastest and most powerful supercomputers in the world to analyze the image and other data sent by Planck. But the first set of major results won’t be released until January or February of next year, according to Huffenberger.
But already the image, along with others released before it, have given astronomers and cosmologists new insight into the way stars and galaxies form.
“They make for some pretty compelling images, regardless of their scientific value,” says Huffenberger, whose research is being funded by NASA and UM’s Office of the Provost. “I was pretty amazed by the delicate structures that you can see in the distribution of wisps of dust. You’re left thinking, ‘That’s the universe we live in, and it has all of this structure to it that, before an instrument like Planck was built, you had no idea was there.’ It’s the first little taste of things to come.”