Circular Polarization in the Cosmic Microwave Background?

Some years ago I went to a seminar on the design of an experiment to measure the polarization of the cosmic microwave background. At the end of the talk I asked what seemed to me to be an innocent question. The point of my question was the speaker had focussed entirely on measuring the intensity of the radiation (I) and the two Stokes Parameters that measure linear polarization of the radiation (usually called Q and U). How difficult, I asked, would it be to measure the remaining Stokes parameter V (which quantifies circular polarization)?

There was a sharp intake of breath among the audience as if I had uttered an obscenity, and the speaker responded with a glare and a curt `the cosmic microwave background is not circularly polarized’. It is true that in the standard cosmological theory the microwave background is produced by Thomson scattering in the early Universe which produces partial linear polarization, so that Q and U are non-zero, but not circular polarization, so V=0. However, I had really asked my question because I had an idea that it might be worth measuring V (or at least putting an upper limit on it) in order to assess the level of instrumental systematics (which are a serious issue with polarization measurements).

I was reminded of this episode when I saw a paper on the arXiv by Keisuke Inomata and Marc Kamionkowski which points out that the CMB may well have some level of circular polarization. Here is the abstract of the paper:

(You can click on the image to make it more readable.) It’s an interesting calculation, but it’s hard to see how we will ever be able to measure a value of Stokes V as low as 10-14.

A few years ago there was a paper on the arXiv by Asantha Cooray, Alessandro Melchiorri and Joe Silk which pointed out that the CMB may well have some level of circular polarization. When light travels through a region containing plasma and a magnetic field, circular polarization can be generated from linear polarization via a process called Faraday conversion. For this to happen, the polarization vector of the incident radiation (defined by the direction of its E-field) must have non-zero component along the local magnetic field, i.e. the B-field. Charged particles are free to move only along B, so the component of E parallel to B is absorbed and re-emitted by these charges, thus leading to phase difference between it and the component of E orthogonal to B and hence to the circular polarization. This is related to the perhaps more familiar process of which causes the plane of linear polarization to rotate when polarized radiation travels through a region containing a magnetic field.

Here is the abstract of that paper:

(Also clickable.) This is a somewhat larger effect but differs from the first paper in that it is produced by foreground processes rather than primordial physics. In any case a Stokes V of 10-9 is also unlikely to be measurable at any time in the foreseeable future.

One Response to “Circular Polarization in the Cosmic Microwave Background?”

  1. Ilian Iliev Says:

    A similar idea is also used for the measurement of (redshifted) 21-cm emission from reionization – it should not be polarized at all, so any measurements of polarization point to remaining foregrounds (which oftern are polarized) after calibration.

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