Laying the foundation for your understanding of the universe
It's called NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) and it has transformed the science of cosmology by establishing the age, geometry and contents of the universe with astonishing precision –an accomplishment now recognized with the 2012 Gruber Cosmology Prize.
U of T's Mike Nolta, an observational cosmologist at the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (CITA), shares the award with lead Charles Bennett and other colleagues from the team.
The prize, which includes a gold medal and $500,000, is co-sponsored by the International Astronomical Union and honours individuals or discoveries leading to fundamental advances in our understanding of the universe.
U of T's Richard Bond, also of CITA, won the 2008 Gruber Prize for his theoretical and analytic work on the cosmic background radiation and the development of structure in the universe.
WMAP was launched June 2001 to map the cosmic microwave background which is the oldest light in the universe emitted when the cosmos was just 378,000 years old. Its findings are now so widely accepted by the astronomical community, that it established the current foundation for our understanding of the universe – what astronomers call the "standard model" of cosmology.
The mission acquired its final science data on Aug. 20, 2010. On Sept. 8, the satellite fired its thrusters, left its working orbit, and entered into a permanent parking orbit around the sun. The science analysis has continued, however, and the team is now working toward the mission's fifth and final data release.
The latest analysis, released in 2011, shows that the universe is 13.75 billion years old, a figure accurate to within one per cent. Only 4.6 per cent of the combined matter and energy in the cosmos can be in forms we're familiar with, like atoms, planets and stars. The rest is dark matter (22.7 per cent) and dark energy (72.8 per cent), phenomena whose gravitational effects can be detected but which astronomers do not yet understand.
Additionally, WMAP data show that the universe must have flat geometry, to within 0.6 percent, and supports theories suggesting that the universe underwent an enormous growth spurt – called inflation – in the first trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang.
Other members of the WMAP team are: Chris Barnes, Rachel Bean, Olivier Dore, Joanna Dunkley, Benjamin M. Gold, Michael Greason, Mark Halpern, Robert Hill, Gary F. Hinshaw, Norman Jarosik, Alan Kogut, Eiichiro Komatsu, David Larson, Michele Limon, Stephan S. Meyer, Michael R.Nolta, Nils Odegard, Lyman Page, Hiranya V. Peiris, Kendrick Smith, David N. Spergel, Greg S. Tucker, Licia Verde, Janet L. Weiland, Edward Wollack and Edward L. (Ned) Wright.
“I'm honoured and fortunate to work with such a talented group of people on such a ground-breaking experiment,” says Nolta.