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Astronomers glimpse newborn universe

13.7 billion-year-old microwave

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PolMap 36The oldest light in the universe has allowed scientists to view the universe just one trillionth of a second after the Big Bang.

NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) satellite was aimed at the background radiation left over from the beginning of the universe for three years. Principal invesigator Charles Bennett said: "The longer WMAP observes, the more it reveals about how our universe grew from microscopic quantum fluctuations to the vast expanse of stars and galaxies we see today."

The work has improved the resolution of the map of tiny fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) left over from the Big Bang (pictured). It has also produced the first data on the polarisation of the CMB, which reveals even more about the features it contains.

In the team's map of the cosmic microwave background 'temperature' (pictured above) red indicates 'warmer' spots and blue 'cooler' spots. The white bars show the polarisation direction of the ancient light. The data shows that for smaller features the relative strength of the signal is lower. NASA says this new information supports a more simple version of how energy was converted into matter by the inflation of space.

WMAP continues to peer at the infant universe, which the researchers expect will improve their data. A big aim of the study is to provide indirect evidence for the existence of gravitational waves by detecting distortion in the polarisation signature. Gravitational waves are a key prediction of Einstein's General Relativity equations. ®

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