e-Veritas Archive | July, 2010

A cosmic look back at the dawn of time

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.

UM astrophysicist Kevin Huffenberger is part of a multinational team of scientists who are analyzing data from the European Space Agency's Planck satellite, which is taking the most highly detailed and accurate measurements ever recorded of the cosmic microwave background, or the ancient light left over from the Big Bang.

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.

The first all-sky image from the Planck mission, taken at millimeter wavelengths too long to be seen with the human eye. In the foreground, wispy shades of blue and white show faintly glowing gas and dust in our own Milky Way galaxy, which is associated with the production of new stars and solar systems. In cosmic terms, most of this dust is nearby, within a few 10,000 light-years. The faintly mottled orange and red background shows a far more distant feature, variations in the intensity of the cosmic microwave background, the faint afterglow of the Big Bang. This light has traveled about 13.7 billion light-years to reach us. Photo credit: European Space Agency.

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.”

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Shakira sizzles at the BUC

International superstar Shakira performs “Waka Waka,” the official song of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, in front of a capacity crowd during Premios Juventud at the University of Miami’s BankUnited Center on July 15th. The popular singer, songwriter, and musician was one of several stars who performed at Univision’s No. 1 awards show, which honors recording artists, movie stars, sports figures, and fashion and pop icons popular with the nation’s Hispanic youth. Broadcast live from BankUnited Center, the show also featured Enrique Iglesias, Juanes, Camila, Wisin Y Yandel, Pitbull, and others. Photo by: Cesar Ferreiro

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Burning up the set

Actors, directors, and crew of USA Network’s Burn Notice were on the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus last Friday, filming scenes for the action-packed original series in two locations: the Pavia Garage and School of Communication. The series, which stars Jeffrey Donovan as Michael Westen, a blacklisted spy, is filmed on location in and around Miami.

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Florida Governor Crist discusses oil spill at UM’s Rosenstiel School

Florida Governor Charlie Crist, left, addresses the roundtable and members of the media, as Rosenstiel School Dean Roni Avissar looks on.

After visits to Panama City and Tampa Bay, where he addressed matters related to the Gulf oil spill, Florida Governor Charlie Crist made a stop at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science last Wednesday. The U.S. Senate hopeful joined a group of UM scientists and other lawmakers in a roundtable discussion there on the environmental disaster’s impact on the state’s key industries and ecosystems.

The roundtable, held in a Rosenstiel School second-floor conference room, came just five days before tomorrow’s special legislative session to consider a constitutional ban on offshore drilling, and almost three months after the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers.

Last week, BP officials announced that the flow of oil from the blown-out undersea well, which may have gushed anywhere between 93 and 184 million gallons of crude, had been capped. Even so, Gulf shore residents remain concerned about the potential long-term damage caused by the spill.

“This is important to Florida—all of Florida,” Crist said at last Wednesday’s roundtable. “Florida depends on tourism as a major driver of its economy…The [state’s] economy and environment are inextricably linked, and we want to do everything we can to protect them.”

Many of the elected officials at the meeting expressed concern over the oil spill’s potential toll on the tourist-based economies of their region. Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez, Village of Key Biscayne Vice Mayor Michael Davey, and State Senator Alex Villalobos, a UM alumnus, were among those in attendance.

Read the full story

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Sebastian takes flight

It was Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, all over again as UM's Ibis Engineers successfully flew their Ibis-inspired aircraft a distance of 48 feet to win the Red Bull Flugtag Miami.

Those magnificent University of Miami students in their flying machine must have felt like the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, as they perched their Ibis-inspired plane on the edge of a 30-foot deck at Bayfront Park in Miami on July 10, hoping their winged contraption would soar high and long. To their delight, the single-pilot glider, made of wire frame and plywood, did just that, flying a distance of 48 feet before splashing down safely—and intact—in Biscayne Bay as some 85,000 spectators cheered them on.

For these five flying aces—College of Engineering students and members of the UM chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers—the effort was good enough to win second place in the Red Bull Flugtag Miami, an event in which 35 teams tested the limits of human flight by piloting their manmade aircraft off a deck, eventually descending into Biscayne Bay.

The Ibis Engineers team of pilot Guillermo Amador and the flight crew of Derek Schesser, Dustin Griner, William T. Hagen, and Randall Schwartz modeled their plane after the school’s popular Sebastian the Ibis, outfitting it with the mascot’s familiar corncob pipe and facial expression. The craft, like all the others in the competition, was judged on flight distance, originality, and showmanship.

Team Formula Flug from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, won the top spot with their winged Formula One racecar.

Photo Credit: Blythe Nobleman/UM College of Engineering

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