Archive for Spider

Last days on the Ice

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on January 25, 2015 by telescoper

Earlier this month I reblogged a post about the launch of the balloon-borne SPIDER experiment in Antarctica. Here’s a follow up from last week. Spider parachuted back down to the ice on January 17th and was recovered successfully. Now the team will be leaving the ice and returning home, hopefully with some exciting science results!

I’d love to go to Antarctica, actually. When I was finishing my undergraduate studies at Cambridge I applied for a place on the British Antarctic Survey, but didn’t get accepted. I don’t suppose I’ll get the chance now, but you never know…

SPIDER on the Ice

Four of the last five of the SPIDER crew– Don, Ed, Sasha, and I– are slated to leave the Ice tomorrow morning. That means this is probably my last blog post– at least until SPIDER 2! It has been an incredible few months, but I can’t say I’m all that sad for it to be ending. I’m ready to have an adventure in New Zealand and then get home to all the people I’ve missed so much while I’ve been away.

As is the nature of field campaigns, it has been an absolute roller coaster, but the highs have certainly made the lows fade in my memory. We got SPIDER on that balloon, and despite all of the complexities and possible points of failure, it worked. That’s a high I won’t be coming down from any time soon.

On top of success with our experiment, we’ve also had the privilege of…

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Launch!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 3, 2015 by telescoper

Meanwhile, in Antarctica, the search for signatures of primordial gravitational waves in the polarization of the cosmic microwave background goes on. Here’s a fascinating blog by a member of the SPIDER team, whose balloon-borne experiment was recently launched and is currently circling the South Pole taking data. Here’s hoping it works out as planned!

SPIDER on the Ice

This is surreal.

I have been working on SPIDER for three and a half years, and much of the rest of the collaboration has been working for many years beyond that. We have all gone through intense times of stress and disappointment, victories and defeats. The personal sacrifice on the part of every individual on the team to get SPIDER to the point of flight readiness has been a weight on all of our shoulders as we prepared to launch our hopes and dreams on a balloon.

Ballooning is incredibly risky. Everything can work flawlessly on the ground, and then one thing can break during launch, or freeze or overheat at float altitude, and no amount of commanding from afar can bring it back to life. This happens so often in ballooning, and all you can do is obsess over every aspect of the experiment, have redundancy where possible, and…

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Some B-Mode Background

Posted in Astrohype, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 15, 2014 by telescoper

Well, in case you hadn’t noticed, the cosmology rumour mill has gone into overdrive this weekend primarily concerning the possibility that an experiment known as BICEP (an acronym formed from Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization). These rumours have been circulating since it was announced last week that the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) will host a press conference  on Monday, March 17th, to announce “a major discovery”. The grapevine is full of possibilities, but it seems fairly clear that the “major discovery” is related to one of the most exciting challenges facing the current generation of cosmologists, namely to locate in the pattern of fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background evidence for the primordial gravitational waves predicted by models of the Universe that involve inflation.

Anyway, I thought I’d add a bit of background on here to help those interested make sense of whatever is announced on Monday evening.

Looking only at the temperature variation across the sky, it is not possible to distinguish between tensor  (gravitational wave) and scalar (density wave) contributions  (both of which are predicted to be excited during the inflationary epoch).  However, scattering of photons off electrons is expected to leave the radiation slightly polarized (at the level of a few percent). This gives us additional information in the form of the  polarization angle at each point on the sky and this extra clue should, in principle, enable us to disentangle the tensor and scalar components.

The polarization signal can be decomposed into two basic types depending on whether the pattern has  odd or even parity, as shown in the nice diagram (from a paper by James Bartlett)

The top row shows the E-mode (which look the same when reflected in a mirror and can be produced by either scalar or tensor modes) and the bottom shows the B-mode (which have a definite handedness that changes when mirror-reflected and which can’t be generated by scalar modes because they can’t have odd parity).

The B-mode is therefore (at least in principle)  a clean diagnostic of the presence of gravitational waves in the early Universe. Unfortunately, however, the B-mode is predicted to be very small, about 100 times smaller than the E-mode, and foreground contamination is likely to be a very serious issue for any experiment trying to detect it. To be convinced that what is being measured is cosmological rather than some sort of contaminant one would have to see the signal repeated across a range of different wavelengths.

Moreover, primordial gravitational waves are not the only way that a cosmological B-mode signal could be generated. Less than a year ago, a paper appeared on the arXiv by Hanson et al. from SPTpol, an experiment which aims to measure the polarization of the cosmic microwave background using the South Pole Telescope. The principal result of this paper was to demonstrate a convincing detection of the so-called “B-mode” of polarization from gravitational lensing of the microwave background photons as they pass through the gravitational field generated by the matter distributed through the Universe. Gravitational lensing can produce the same kind of shearing effect that gravitational waves generate, so it’s important to separate this “line-of-sight” effect from truly primordial signals.

So we wait with bated breath to see exactly what is announced on Monday. In particular, it will be extremely interesting to see whether the new results from BICEP are consistent with the recently published conclusions from Planck. Although Planck has not yet released the analysis of its own polarization data, analysis of the temperature fluctuations yields a (somewhat model-dependent) conclusion that the ratio of tensor to scalar contributions to the CMB pattern is no more than about 11 per cent, usually phrased in the terms, i.e. R<0.11. A quick (and possibly inaccurate) back-of-the-envelope calculation using the published expected sensitivity of BICEP suggests that if they have made a detection it might be above that limit. That would be really interesting because it might indicate that something is going on which is not consistent with the standard framework. The limits on R arising from temperature studies alone assume that both scalar and tensor perturbations are generated by a relatively simple inflationary model belonging to a class in which there is a direct relationship between the relative amplitudes of the two modes (and the shape of the perturbation spectrum). So far everything we have learned from CMB analysis is broadly consistent with this simplifying assumption being correct. Are we about to see evidence that the early Universe was more complex than we thought? We'll just have to wait and see…

Incidentally, once upon a time there was a British experiment called Clover (involving the Universities of  Cardiff, Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester) which was designed to detect the primordial B-mode signal from its vantage point in Chile. I won’t describe it in more detail here, for reasons which will become obvious.

The chance to get involved in a high-profile cosmological experiment was one of the reasons I moved to Cardiff in 2007, and I was looking forward to seeing the data arriving for analysis. Although I’m primarily a theorist, I have some experience in advanced statistical methods that might have been useful in analysing the output.  Unfortunately, however, none of that actually happened. Because of its budget crisis, and despite the fact that it had spent a large amount (£4.5M) on it already,  STFC decided to withdraw the funding needed to complete it (£2.5M)  and cancelled the Clover experiment. Had it gone ahead it would probably have had two years’ data in the bag by now.

It wasn’t clear that Clover would have won the race to detect the B-mode cosmological polarization, but it’s a real shame it was withdrawn as a non-starter. C’est la vie.

Clover and Out

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2009 by telescoper

One of the most exciting challenges facing the current generation of cosmologists is to locate in the pattern of fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background evidence for the primordial gravitational waves predicted by models of the Universe that involve inflation.

Looking only at the temperature variation across the sky, it is not possible to distinguish between tensor  (gravitational wave) and scalar (density wave) contributions  (both of which are predicted to be excited during the inflationary epoch).  However, scattering of photons off electrons is expected to leave the radiation slightly polarized (at the level of a few percent). This gives us additional information in the form of the  polarization angle at each point on the sky and this extra clue should, in principle, enable us to disentangle the tensor and scalar components.

The polarization signal can be decomposed into two basic types depending on whether the pattern has  odd or even parity, as shown in the nice diagram (from a paper by James Bartlett)

The top row shows the E-mode (which look the same when reflected in a mirror and can be produced by either scalar or tensor modes) and the bottom shows the B-mode (which have a definite handedness that changes when mirror-reflected and which can’t be generated by scalar modes because they can’t have odd parity).

The B-mode is therefore (in principle)  a clean diagnostic of the presence of gravitational waves in the early Universe. Unfortunately, however, the B-mode is predicted to be very small, about 100 times smaller than the E-mode, and foreground contamination is likely to be a very serious issue for any experiment trying to detect it.

An experiment called Clover (involving the Universities of  Cardiff, Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester) was designed to detect the primordial B-mode signal from its vantage point in Chile. You can read more about the way it works at the dedicated webpages here at Cardiff and at Oxford. I won’t describe it in more detail here, for reasons which will become obvious.

The chance to get involved in a high-profile cosmological experiment was one of the reasons I moved to Cardiff a couple of years ago, and I was looking forward to seeing the data arriving for analysis. Although I’m primarily a theorist, I have some experience in advanced statistical methods that might have been useful in analysing the output.  It would have been fun blogging about it too.

Unfortunately, however, none of that is ever going to happen. Because of its budget crisis, and despite the fact that it has spent a large amount (£4.5M) on it already,  STFC has just decided to withdraw the funding needed to complete it (£2.5M)  and cancel the Clover experiment.

Clover wasn’t the only B-mode experiment in the game. Its rivals include QUIET and SPIDER, both based in the States. It wasn’t clear that Clover would have won the race, but now that we know  it’s a non-runner  we can be sure it won’t.