New Eyes on the Universe

Book cover - New Eyes on the Universe

My book New Eyes on the Universe looks at the wonderful new astronomical observatories that are under construction. We will soon have tremendous new instruments – from radio telescopes through to gamma-ray telescopes, as well as new completely new types of observatory. These are exciting times! The book is subtitled: “Twelve cosmic mysteries and the tools we need to solve them”, so also expect posts on dark energy, dark matter, dark ages et al.
Available from Springer Science.

FAST completed

Time rolls by. When I wrote New Eyes on the Universe I pictured FAST – the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope – as an instrument for the mid-term future. Construction of the telescope began in March 2011 but I thought its remote location in a karst sinkhole in Guizhou Province, combined with the technical difficulty of operating such a large device, would cause innumerable delays. In September 2016, however, the telescope saw first light. Chinese scientists are now calibrating the telescope, and by 2019 it should be doing astronomy.

FAST is a staggering telescope. It consists of 4450 triangular reflecting panels that combine to form a collection area more than twice as large as the famous 300m Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico. If it works to its design specifications, FAST will be twice as sensitive as Arecibo, observe three times more sky than Arecibo, and be able to survey the sky 5–10 times faster than Arecibo.

Such a vast instrument has the potential to make a number of discoveries in pure astronomy, but a further intriguing possibility lies in its use for SETI: scientists interested in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence will be able to “piggyback” on pure science projects and comb the data for signals.


FAST lies in a natural basin in the Guizhou Province of China. The telescope is undoubtedly an impressive astronomical instrument, but its name is a slight misnomer: although the reflector diameter is 500m only a 300m diameter circle is used at any one time. (Credit: Asianewsphoto)


On Saturday 16 July 2016 the MeerKat radio telescope, currently under construction in South Africa, formally commissioned its first 16 dishes. The same day, astronomers released the first image taken by these 16 dishes: the image revealed 1300 galaxies in a small region of space where only 70 galaxies had previously been detected.

These 16 MeerKat dishes represent only one quarter of the final contingent: the complete telescope will contain 64 dishes. And the 64-dish MeerKat will be only one element of the multi-component Square Kilometer Array (SKA).

This first image from a quarter-completed Meerkat gives a hint at what a tremendously powerful instrument the SKA is going to be!

First light mages from MeerKat

A “first light” image from the MeerKat radio telescope. The central image is a montage. The two right-hand panels show galaxies containing central supermassive black holes.(Credit: MeerKat/SKA South Africa)

Thirty Meter Telescope to move?

In July 2009, the governing board of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) chose Mauna Kea mountain on Hawaii as the site of the $1.4bn facility. In October 2014, however, at the telescope’s ground-breaking, native Hawaiians held a protest. They regard the Mauna Kea summit as sacred and they object to the number of telescopes there. (Mauna Kea is one of the best places in the world to put a telescope, which is why astronomers have put 13 telescopes there. The TMT would be the 14th, and by far the largest.)

The TMT board are now considering other possible locations for the telescope. Possible options include Chile and the Canary Islands. It will be interesting to see where on Earth this vast telescope will be built.


An artist’s impression of the TMT which, if it is built, would allow astronomers to peer back to the earliest stages of the universe. (Credit: TMT Observatory)

The Edge of the Sky, by Roberto Trotta: A book review

Last month I finished a first draft of an article about AMS-02 for the Yearbook of Astronomy 2016. (As I write this, 2016 seems a long way away – but the lead time for this volume is long and, besides, I have other writing commitments this year. I wanted to get a draft version out of the way while I had chance.) The target audience for the Yearbook consists of amateur astronomers – people who are deeply interested in astronomy and cosmology but who don’t necessarily have a scientific or mathematical training. Much of my article, therefore, is taken up by explaining the meaning of various technical words and phrases – “positron fraction”, “neutralino annihilation”, “primordial antimatter” and so on. Even the name of the experiment – Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer – requires explanation. It took me several thousand words to explain why Sam Ting and his AMS might, or might not, have seen something of great scientific interest.

When I heard that Roberto Trotta had written The Edge of the Sky – a book about cosmology using only the thousand most frequently used English words – I thought he must either be barking mad or else a member of the Oulipo (you know, those authors who decide to write novels while blindfolded and using only letters that appear on the left-half of a keyboard, or something equally arbitrary and constraining). I thought it would be a disaster. It turned out to be one of the most charming, fresh and inventive books of popular science that I’ve read.

In Trotta’s book, the Milky Way becomes the White Road, electrons are referred to as Very Small Drops and antimatter becomes Sister Drops. (So I guess the positron, which I write about in my Yearbook article, would be the Sister Drop of the Very Small Drop.) These and other word choices are wonderful and lead to a surprising clarity of expression.

But is it really possible to describe the complexity of modern science using this approach. Well, I tried to explain the importance of AMS-02 using polysyllabic words to replace other, more technical, polysyllabic words. In The Edge of the Sky a space-based detector such as AMS-02 becomes a flying Far-Seer in the sky. The heroine of Trotta’s book wonders whether dark matter will first show up in such a flying Far-Seer in the sky or in one of the big ears in the rock (in other words, one of the multitude of underground detectors such as LUX or DAMA), in the huge eye in the ice (the IceCube Neutrino Observatory) or in the Big Ring in the ground (the Large Hadron Collider). This approach is possible. It works, and it works beautifully.

The experience of reading The Edge of the Sky is strange and rather hypnotic. I think everyone can learn something from it. This book is a must-read. (A sentence that uses the 28th, 455th, 13th, 85th, 88th and 317th most-used English words according to Project Gutenberg.)

Kepler’s latest haul

The Kepler mission continues to astound. In May 2013 it suffered a malfunction that ended its primary mission: the spacecraft needs three reaction wheels in order to point its telescope with accuracy, and when the second of four such wheels failed the mission was over. However, a team of scientists and engineers developed a method for using the pressure of sunlight as a third “virtual” reaction wheel: the method works (albeit with reduced capabilities and with the need for a prodigious amount of signal analysis). Kepler is back in business.

In December 2014, astronomers announced that Kepler had spotted a new planet (HIP 116454b), a discovery that was subsequently confirmed by other telescopes. HIP 116454b is a super-Earth: it has about 12 times the mass of Earth and is about 2.5 times larger. It orbits close to a K-type orange dwarf. (The Allen Telescope Array has observed this planet, looking for signals in the range 1000 to 2250 MHz.  It didn’t hear anything.)

And further analysis of existing pre-malfunction Kepler data has taken its tally of exoplanet discoveries past 1000. The latest batch includes the most Earth-like planet found to date: Kepler 438b is just 12% larger than Earth.

Kepler continues to produce surprises!




BICEP2 turns to dust?

I have just finished checking page proofs of an article that will appear in the 2015 Yearbook of Astronomy. The article is entitled “Ripples from the start of time?” and it discusses what had the potential to be one of the most important and exciting cosmological discoveries in decades: B-mode polarization of the cosmic microwave background. Earlier this year, the BICEP2 experiment claimed to have found just such polarization and argued that their measurements could only be explained in terms of primordial gravitational waves – ripples of space made large by inflation, an event that took place when the universe was only a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old.

The BICEP2 team made a bold claim, and bold claims require a lot of solid evidence before they can be accepted by the scientific community. Soon after the team made their announcement of B-mode polarization, scientists raised doubts about the interpretation of the measurements (though not of the measurements themselves: everyone acknowledges that the scientists involved here are extremely capable astronomers). One problem was that the BICEP2 experiment observed the sky at only one frequency: when you have only one data point, any curve can be made to go through it. When you observe the cosmic microwave background you need measurements at several different frequencies before you can be sure that your signal really does come from the distant cosmos and not somewhere nearby. A second, more pernicious, problem was that it was not at all clear that the BICEP2 team had properly accounted for dust.

The issue is that dust grains in the galaxy can polarize light – and in particular it can give rise to a B-mode pattern of polarization. If the BICEP2 team had underestimated the amount of dust emission then their interpretation of their observed signal had to be under suspicion. It’s why I added a question mark to the title of my article: BICEP2 might have been seeing a signal from the dawn of time, but it might not.

A recent paper by the Planck collaboration suggests that the BICEP2 result might well have been the result of dust. It turns out that there is much more dust in the area of sky observed by BICEP2 than was originally thought. That in turn means that the BICEP2 results are entirely consistent with observations of dust. This doesn’t mean that B-mode polarization of the cosmic microwave background does not exist, nor even that BICEP2 didn’t spot such polarization; but it does mean that we don’t need to invoke inflation in order to explain the BICEP2 results.

A joint paper by the Planck and BICEP2 teams, due for publication later this year, should clarify the situation further. But at the moment it seems that our dreams of being able to look back to the very start of the universe must be put on hold. Shame. Those dreams were beautiful while they lasted

Ripples from the start of time

In New Eyes on the Universe I mentioned a few of the experiments that were attempting to find B-mode polarisation in the cosmic microwave background (CMB). I thought that Planck might be able to tease out the B-mode pattern, or perhaps POLARBEAR. But I thought the signal would be so difficult to discern that I didn’t mention all the different experiments. I didn’t mention Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization 2 (BICEP2), for example. But today – 17 March 2014 – BICEP2 announced the discovery of the B-mode polarisation pattern in the CMP. And the signal appears to be clear. If the discovery holds up – if POLARBEAR, Planck or any of the other experiments confirm the finding – then it’s profound. The initial CMB studies enabled us to probe the universe when it was 380,000 years old; with B-mode investigations we have a probe that takes us back to when the universe was a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old.

What is BICEP2?

BICEP2 is a telescope based at the South Pole. Antarctica might seem a strange place to put a telescope, but if you’re going to study the CMB then it’s probably the best place on Earth. The South Pole has one of the driest environments on the planet, so the absorption of microwaves by atmospheric water vapour is minimised. (You can’t observe the CMB from England, say: it’s simply too wet.) Its stable weather patterns and the altitude – about 3000 meters – also help. And average winter temperatures of -58°C are useful: BICEP2 uses bolometers – sensitive devices for measuring EM radiation through the heating of a material – that are best operated and maintained in cold conditions.

The BICEP2 instrument (foreground) at the South Pole. (Credit: Steffen Richeter/Harvard University)

The BICEP2 instrument (foreground) at the South Pole. (Credit: Steffen Richeter/Harvard University)

Putting a telescope into space, which was the approach taken by NASA and ESA with the COBE, WMAP and Planck missions, is even better than siting it at the South Pole. But space missions have their drawbacks, of course, not least of which is cost. A microwave observatory at the South Pole is as close as one can get to the conditions in space without actually launching a satellite.

The original BICEP telescope observed from 2006-2008. The upgraded BICEP2, deployed in 2009, used the same principles, but had improved optics and detectors. BICEP2 was very much more sensitive than BICEP1.

What is B-mode polarisation?

Light from the sky is polarised: you can check this by wearing polarised sunglasses. The polarisation arises from the way that atoms in the atmosphere scatters light towards us. As with visible light, microwaves can be polarised. And radiation that was scattered towards us from atoms that existed when the universe was young can cause the CMB to be polarised. This so-called E-mode polarisation of the CMB was detected as long ago as 2002.

In addition to E-mode polarisation there is a polarisation mode called the B-mode. The two modes look very different. The E-mode pattern is symmetric – look at it in a mirror nothing changes. The B-mode pattern has a swirling aspect, a handedness – look at it in a mirror and it appears to change. B-mode polarisation arises not from scattering but from the passage of a photon through a gravitational wave: at any point the wave squeezes and stretches space in one direction, then stretches and squeezes it.

Why should be expect the CMB to contain a B-mode polarisation pattern?

Inflation is the idea that the cosmos expanded at an exponential rate for a fleeting instant when the universe was a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old. Under inflation, the universe is thought to have expanded from a quantum size to something the size of a melon. And that process would have generated gravitational waves. Those primordial waves would still be propagating across the universe, but would be too feeble for us to detect directly. However, those primordial waves would have polarised the CMB and left a B-mode pattern. The pattern would be exceedingly difficult to detect, but it should be possible. And that is precisely what BICEP2 claims to have done.

The B-mode polarisation pattern found by BICEP2. The swirling pattern is remarkably clear. (Credit: BICEP2)

The B-mode polarisation pattern found by BICEP2. The swirling pattern is remarkably clear. (Credit: BICEP2)

It’s possible that some form of “contamination” might generate the patterns detected by BICEP2 – perhaps it was dust in our galaxy, or flaws in the telescope, or gravitational lensing from distant galaxies. But the BICEP2 team have taken huge care to rule out those effects. It appears to be a solid result. By far the simplest explanation for the observations is that BICEP2 have seen microwave polarisation caused by primordial gravitational waves.

Why is this discovery so important?

The discovery of the B-mode is of huge importance for a variety of reasons.

  • It’s a clear, if indirect, detection of gravitational waves.
  • It’s clear evidence for inflation.
  • It’s a clear indication that gravity and quantum physics must somehow “hang together”: when we see the B-mode we are seeing the effects of quantum gravity

Now that astronomers know where to look, a plethora of experiments are going to be investigating the B-mode – and helping us to understand how the universe came into being.

A multiplicity of worlds

The day after my birthday the Kepler team announced (I like to think perhaps as a belated present) the discovery of 715 new exoplanets. This is a huge haul. It brings the tally of known planets to almost 1700.

The team was able to confirm the existence of such a large number of planets by making use of a new statistical approach to their analysis. Kepler worked by observing 160,000 stars and looking for periodic dips in brightness. The idea was that these periodic dips could be a sign of a transiting planet. The trouble is, these dips could also be caused by orbiting binary stars eclipsing each other. With the new technique, the Kepler team looked for multiple dips in brightness: this phenomenon must be caused by transiting planets rather than multiple eclipsing stars.

The technique works beautifully: those 715 planets just announced orbit only 305 stars. The Kepler data contains information on planetary systems, not just single planets.

Kepler tells us that planetary systems are common. It tells us small planets are common. And it tells us that some planets will orbit in the habitable zone. Deep-down we knew all those things anyway; but because of this announcement we can be sure.



Bert and Ernie and a new type of astronomy?

In May 2013, scientists presented a preliminary analysis of 28 high-energy events captured by the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, a strange telescope entombed deep in Antarctic ice. Two of these events – dubbed Bert and Ernie – had an energy above 1 PeV. (I wrote about these events in an earlier post.) The other 26 events had an energy in excess of 30 TeV. The initial analysis suggested that these 28 events were likely to be from extraterrestrial sources. A more detailed analysis, published today in the journal Science, suggests that only about 11 of the 28 events are likely to have been caused by atmospheric muons or neutrinos. This means that, at a 4? level of certainty, IceCube has detected high-energy neutrinos from outside the Solar System. A 4? result is not quite at the 5? level that is usually said to constitute a discovery, but it is highly suggestive: there is only one chance in 15000 that all those detections were of purely atmospheric events.

IceCube building

The IceCube Neutrino Observatory consists of dozens of photomultiplier tubes attached to 86 cables, each of which are up to 2.5 km long and buried deep in Antarctic ice. The photomultipliers detect the Cerenkov radiation from fast-moving secondary particles created when neutrinos strike nuclei in the ice. The structure here is just the tip of the observatory! (Credit: IceCube Collaboration)

The exciting thing, I believe, is that the IceCube team now know how and where to look for high-energy neutrinos. They’ll find more astrophysical neutrinos, for sure, and the neutrino sky suddenly looks much more interesting. For many years, the only extraterrestrial neutrinos that astronomers had detected were those from the Sun and a few from SN1987A. IceCube has thus broken new ground.

The IceCube discovery has caused many commentators to hail a new type of astronomy: neutrino astronomy. Well, I don’t think we are quite there yet. The problem is that we don’t know where Bert, Ernie or the other neutrinos originated. To do neutrino astronomy one needs to be able to correlate neutrinos with specific astrophysical objects; the IceCube measurements lacked the angular resolution to do this. But that, too, will come. And new neutrino telescopes, such as the KM3NeT facility that is being constructed in the Mediterranean, will help.

We can’t do neutrino astronomy just yet, but it won’t be long before we’re studying the universe from an entirely new vantage point. And then, for the first time, astronomers will be able to study the distant universe using something other than electromagnetic radiation. IceCube is opening its eyes.

Another twist in the dark matter mystery

In New Eyes on the Universe I gave only passing mention to the Large Underground Xenon (LUX) dark matter experiment. LUX was clearly going to be an important player in the search for dark matter, but while I was writing the book the experiment was still in its commissioning phase. Yesterday, LUX presented results from its first three months of operation. (For those who haven’t read the book, LUX employs 370kg of liquid xenon cooled to about 160K and shielded by water in a search for WIMP dark matter. If a WIMP collides with a xenon nucleus then the photons and electrons emitted as the nucleus recoils can be detected. In order to shield the xenon from cosmic rays and other background radiation, experimenters have placed the detector a mile underneath the Black Hills of South Dakota.)

The first thing to note is that LUX is now the world’s most sensitive detector currently searching for WIMP dark matter. Richard Gaitskell, a spokesperson for LUX, described its sensitivity with a footballing analogy. Imagine a 75000-strong crowd of football fans, each clapping twice a second: the number of claps is what  the detector was hearing each second while it was on the surface. That’s a tremendous cacophony. When the detector was placed a mile underground it was  as if the clapping fell to a rate of one clap per minute. That reduction in background is necessary: LUX is trying to ‘hear’ the equivalent of a sigh…

The second thing to note is that LUX is sensitive to WIMPs across a wide range of possible masses. There have been tantalizing hints by other dark matter experiments of WIMPs having a relatively low mass of around 8.6 GeV; many models based on supersymmetry, on the other hand, predict WIMPs with a mass of 35 GeV or more. LUX is sensitive to both low- and high-mass WIMPs.

And the results of the first 90 days of LUX operation? Well, the LUX data are consistent with the detector having seen zero dark matter particles during that time. As a LUX team member put it: “We’ve seen nothing better than anyone else.” The problem is, if an 8.6 GeV WIMP particle did indeed exist, as hinted at by CDMS, then LUX should have seen 1550 of them during those first 90 days. It seems impossible to reconcile these latest results with the existence of a low-mass WIMP.

The LUX results don’t prove the non-existence of dark matter, of course, and before reaching any conclusions we will really need to wait for the next LUX report: that will present an analysis of the first 300-days of operation. But the LUX results do put the dark matter mystery squarely in the spotlight: it’s becoming imperative that we learn just what dark matter is.