Looking Back in Time

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Seeking insights about the origins and future of the universe, a UM physicist is studying Big Bang baby pictures—remnants of light from the dawn of creation.

The first all-sky image from the Planck mission, taken at millimeter wavelengths too long to be seen with the human eye.

As a middle school student growing up in Columbus, Ohio, Kevin Huffenberger developed a keen interest in cosmology, learning all he could about black holes, distant galaxies, and the nature of time. One topic, in particular, captured his curiosity: how the universe developed after the Big Bang.

Today, as an assistant professor of physics in UM’s College of Arts and Sciences, Huffenberger is still pursuing his passion. He’s a member of an international group of physicists, astronomers, engineers, and other scientists who are analyzing data from the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite in a quest for definitive answers about the universe’s origin, development, and continued evolution.

Planck, which blasted off in 2009 and is now orbiting nearly one million miles from Earth, will survey and map the entire sky until early 2012, taking precise measurements of fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background —ancient light from the fireball that gave birth to the universe some 13.7 billion years ago. These fluctuations will yield the clearest picture yet of the infant universe—when it was a mere 380,000 years old.

Shedding Light on Dark Matter—and More
The data, which Huffenberger describes as “unprecedented in quality and scope,” will shed light on the large-scale properties of the universe, including the cause of its rapid expansion, the nature of dark matter and dark energy, and the origin and ongoing creation of galaxies and stars.

Huffenberger developed a portion of the data processing pipeline that calibrates the Planck telescope’s response to microwave fluctuations. His contribution to the project will also include work with UM postdoctoral associate Jan Kratochvil to evaluate slight distortions in the microwave background.

Planck recently transmitted its first all-sky image, an expansive view of our own Milky Way galaxy and the universe as it existed more than 13 billion years ago. While analysis of data now being transmitted will take several months, the satellite has already yielded tantalizing insights. Says Huffenberger, whose research is being funded by NASA and UM's Office of the Provost, “It’s the first little taste of things to come.”

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