First detection of primordial gravitational waves?

There was a big press conference last week to announce the discovery of evidence of primordial gravitational waves from the formation of the Universe in the Big Bang. It was carried by much of the UK media [TV and print] so I thought a few words appropriate.

The currently accepted theory of the Big Bang requires a process called inflation to explain what we observe today. Inflation is the faster than light expansion of space that smoothed out space, amongst other things, ultimately leaving its fingerprint on the remnant radiation from the later part of the Big Bang presently observable.

This remnant of the Big Bang is  the 3 Kelvin temperature cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation first observed by Penzias and Wilson in the mid 1960’s, for which they were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1978. More recently the CMB has been mapped in great detail, first by the COBE satellite and more recently the WMAP satellite. The all-sky map of temperature is remarkably even at approximately 2.7 degrees above absolute zero. The important result though is the fluctuations about this temperature are remarkably small, a few hundred millionth’s of a degree – a picture [below] we are probably quite familiar with now.


This small variations can be readily explained by the Big Bang model with inflation. It is believed that these fluctuations indicate tiny temperature and density variations that ultimately led to the structures we see in the Universe today – stars, galaxies and clusters of galaxies.

However, the inflation model also suggests the production of gravitational waves and these gravitational waves will leave a particular signature on the CMB – it will polarise the radiation. The BICEP2 experiment at the South Pole has looked at a small region of sky. The results announced at the press conference seem to show polarisation that can only be explained by gravitational waves. The picture below shows the familiar temperature pattern with the added extra of the lines showing the polarisation._73634672_73634671

The twisted form of the polarisation is the expected signature of the primordial gravitational waves. If so, this is really an important observation suggesting that the inflation model is correct. Some are saying a Nobel Prize level discovery. The BICEP2 team say that the only other possible polarisation source is dust in our galaxy and synchrotron radiation but that they can eliminate these ( at some level) using earlier observations.

Other experiments are trying to find the same effect but have yet to announce any results. The Planck satellite is said to have lots of data awaiting analysis which hopefully will show the effect. Quite a few very knowledgeable people are slightly sceptical as these results need extensive confirmation.  One prominent UK scientist said “If…and it’s a big if…this is true, it would be spectacular evidence for what happened at the Big Bang.” There are discrepancies between this new data and the older WMAP and Planck observations which need investigation and explanation. Time will tell if this first observation of the effect of gravitational waves is correct.

One odd thing is that the results were announced at a press conference and not published in a peer reviewed journal.  Peer review and confirmation by another experiment is the real test of any scientific discovery. The cynical will wonder why a press conference: is it just because it is so important; is another group about to announce a similar discovery; or is their funding up for renewal? Many physicists of my age remember the last great ‘discovery’ announced by a press conference – cold fusion, the fusion that never was… I saw a draft of the paper on that work and if it had been a year 1 undergraduate student effort, it would have got 3/10 and the words ‘You need to be more precise and more scientific in your writing’! Hopefully, this discovery will turn out to be the real deal.

Now that was a challenge…

When I wrote that the Night Sky in March would include a “big sky” view of Jupiter’s highest point, I thought at the time that it would be a fun challenge.


The cloudy forecast for the 13th meant that I had to take up the challenge a couple of days early, so Jupiter wasn’t quite as high and the Moon was a bit more central than I would have liked. Anyway, here’s how the evening turned out.

A good chance to see Mare Orientale…


Back in December 2012 I wrote a post on my Cumbrian Sky blog reporting how I had spotted “Mare Orientale” on the Moon. This huge mountain-ringed impact basin on the lunar farside  is usually hidden from our view, but occasionally we can see it peeking around the limb of the Moon. This is one of those times, and on March 20th we should have a pretty good chance of seeing it…

Rather than write out the whole blog post again, here’s a link to it…

Spotting Mare Orientale

And here’s what to look for, and where, on March 20th (morning sky)…

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Good luck!

Jupiter with a webcam

As I can’t add an image in a comment, I’ve had to do it here instead. I took loads of videos using my 8″ and a Philips SPC900NC webcam [plus IR/UV filter and Baader Neodymium contrast filter] from outside my front door in central Kendal on Monday evening. So far I’ve only had time to process one – so here it is. Io is visible at 4-o-clock about 1 Jupiter diameter away. JupiterWC_0010 and Io 2034 Mar 10

Really pleased with this. 300 frames stacked in Registax. Image taken 20:34, 10th March 2014. Jupiter’s north pole is at approximately 7-o-clock.

Ian Bradley

Moonwatch 8th March 2014

An unexpectedly successful Moonwatch at the Brewery Arts Centre. After all the cloudy skies we have had recently, we struck lucky on Saturday night and the Moon and Jupiter were clearly visible, high in the sky. There was a little high cloud, but nothing to matter.

We had five telescopes available, and a steady trickle of hopeful skywatchers, maybe 50-60 over the two hours. Having gazed at the Moon and said “wow!”, “ooh!” etc, people were then very keen to see Jupiter as well. As the evening went on, the sky cleared a little and it was easy to see the bands on Jupiter and all four large moons. A few of the more eager skywatchers asked to see Saturn and Mars next, and we had to explain that half the sky is actually hidden behind the earth at any one time. Turns out you can’t do this without waving your arms around like a helicopter!

Liz Hodgson

Aurora was visible from Kendal area on 28th February

The aurora was visible from Kendal last week despite Graham missing it! I picked up the aurorawatch text message alert through their twitter site, as my phone is most decidedly dumb, at around 9pm. I grabbed a camera and dragged Liz out and headed up to Shap summit to get somewhere a bit darker… The aurora was visible from Mealbank on the northern Kendal outskirts but appeared to be fading by the time we were at Shap. Not the best site as too much traffic. Quite a few other people clearly had the same idea… any EAS members? Sadly cloud rolled in from the south shortly after we arrived. Anyway, I took a few images but they aren’t great. No sign of any red colouration, just the light pollution from Penrith and I guess Carlisle. The first was taken just as we arrived… having made every possible mistake in the book – poor focus, overlong exposure, not fully wide angle and lens not at smallest f-number – oh well.


Then the cloud rolled in but I managed another shot nicely framed by the pylons…


Ian Bradley

Heavens Above Podcast – March 2014

Hi all

The March episode of the Heavens Above Astronomy Podcast featuring myself, John Pye & Stuart is now available to listen to.

In this months episode we talk about what can be seen in the night sky, we look at Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, the Moon and some forthcoming conjunctions.

We also look at which Apollo Astronaut will be here in the UK next month and touch on the film Gravity!

So sit back, relax and enjoy this months podcast

There are 3 ways to listen…

DOWNLOAD LINK (Right Click and ‘Save Link As’)

Subscribe on iTunes using THIS LINK

Or listen online via our homepage on THIS LINK