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Probe to take 'ultimate baby picture' of universe

From a perch well beyond the moon, the MAP probe will hunt for radiation from the Big Bang
From a perch well beyond the moon, the MAP probe will hunt for radiation from the Big Bang  

By Richard Stenger

(CNN) -- A NASA observatory will soon begin a journey back in time, focusing on the afterglow of the "big bang" to shed light on deep questions as old as the cosmos.

The satellite will compose a full-sky montage of the oldest light in the universe, a panoramic picture that could help scientists determine the content, shape and fate of the universe.

The Microwave Anisotropy Probe (MAP), which has undergone final preflight tests, should lift off aboard a Delta rocket on June 30 from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

"We're going to launch a mission that will take the ultimate baby picture," NASA scientist Alan Bunner told reporters on Tuesday.

Astronomers have been making progress on a rough sketch of the cosmos for decades. In the 1960s, they accidentally discovered uniform microwave emissions from all directions of the universe, which they identified as the faint remnants of the immediate aftermath of the theoretical "Big Bang" explosion.

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image Watch an animation of the MAP satellite
(Courtesy NASA)

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Since then, high-flying scientific balloons and satellites with increasingly keen vision have detected slight variations in the background radiation, which travels an estimated 14 billion light-years before reaching Earth.

Such "anisotropic" differences in density in the early universe served as the structural seeds for what later became the major structures of the universe, such as galaxies, according to physicists.

MAP will give by far the best look yet at the cosmic "fossils" from the edge of the universe, mission scientists said. It will provide measurements with 1,000 times more accuracy than a predecessor satellite, the Cosmic Background Explorer.

"Just as we can study dinosaur bones and reconstruct their lives of millions of years ago, we can probe this ancient light and reconstruct the universe as it was about 14 billion years ago," said David Wilkinson of Princeton University.

The Microwave Anisotropy Probe (MAP)
The Microwave Anisotropy Probe (MAP)  

Scientists expect the $145 million mission will help them zero in on the answers to deep mysteries: What happened just after the "Big Bang"? How did the universe evolve? What shape does the universe have? Of what is the universe primarily composed? And ultimately, will the universe collapse?

After its June 30 launch, MAP should take three months to reach its scientific observation point, about 1 million miles (1.5 million km) beyond Earth and four times beyond the orbit of the moon.

That distance will prevent Earth or sun microwave emissions from interfering with the observations, which should be completed within 18 months, scientists said.

• MAP: Microwave Anisotropy Probe
• NASA Home Page

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