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NASA probe launched for trip back to the future

The MAP launches into space aboard a Delta rocket Saturday afternoon  

By Richard Stenger

(CNN) -- NASA launched a satellite on a journey back in time, looking for the oldest light in the universe on a scientific quest to explain the history and destiny of the universe.

It blasted off at 3:46 p.m. EDT Saturday aboard a Delta 2 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The $145 million NASA observatory will map the afterglow of the Big Bang with unparalleled detail, conducting its search from a clear vantage point about four times beyond the orbit of the moon.

The Microwave Anisotropy Probe (MAP) will compose a full-sky montage of radiation from the edges of the physical universe, thought to be remnants of the immediate aftermath of the theoretical Big Bang.

Watch an animation of the MAP satellite (Courtesy NASA)

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Space exploration  

The cosmic portrait will be "the ultimate baby picture," NASA scientist Alan Bunner said.

Astronomers have made progress on a rough sketch of the cosmos for decades. In the 1960s, they accidentally stumbled across faint, uniform radiation permeating the cosmic background.

Since then, sophisticated high-flying scientific balloons and satellites detected slight variations in the microwave energy, 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 is expected to give by far the best look at the early universe fossils, providing measurements with 1,000 times more accuracy than its predecessor satellite, the Cosmic Background Explorer.

Scientists expect the mission will help them tackle deep cosmic mysteries: What happened just after the Big Bang? How did the universe evolve? What shape does the universe have? What is the universe composed of? And ultimately, will the universe collapse?

MAP should take three months to reach its scientific observation point, about 1 million miles (1.5 million kilometers) beyond Earth.

That distance will prevent terrestrial or solar microwave emissions from interfering with the observations, which should be completed within 18 months.

• MAP (Microwave Anisotropy Probe)
• NASA's Origins Program
• Space Interferometry Mission
• California Institute of Technology

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