Aerial photograph of the current Simons Observatory site
Aerial photograph of the current Simons Observatory site
Credit: Simons Observatory

Oxford role in search for origins of Universe

Astronomy and astrophysics
Particle astrophysics & cosmology

Researchers from Oxford’s Department of Physics are part of a UK-based consortium that has recently been awarded an £18 million grant by the UK Research and Innovation Infrastructure Fund. The funding will significantly extend the scientific capabilities of Simons Observatory (SO), a ground-based telescope high in the Atacama Desert in Chile. SO is one of the most promising ground-based observing facilities targeting the cosmic microwave background (CMB). As the CMB is the first light able to propagate after the Big Bang, scientists will use the enhanced infrastructure to explore the cosmic origins of the Universe.

The grant will allow the UK team to build two small aperture telescopes (SATs), which will complement the three existing SATs as well as the existing single large aperture telescope. Together, they will make precise and detailed observations of the CMB to understand how matter was distributed shortly after the Big Bang. Of the awarded funds, £2 million will support the Oxford team in building hardware for the new telescopes, as well as contributing to the data and science analysis of SO.

Professor Mike Jones comments: ‘Here at Oxford, we have many years' experience in designing and building experiments with the kind of advanced technology and data analysis techniques that SO needs. Taking part in projects like this also allows us to develop skills and train students in cutting-edge technologies with wide-ranging applications.’

The telescopes will be used to explore the potential detection of new light particles in the early Universe as well as the detection of gravitational waves originated by the physical processes that gave rise to the Big Bang, through their impact in the polarisation of the CMB. ‘Primordial gravitational waves cause a very specific pattern called B-modes,’ adds Professor David Alonso, a member of the Oxford team, and co-lead of the B-modes working group in SO. ‘If detected, these primordial B-modes would provide a unique window into physical processes taking place at incredibly high energies in the early Universe. Being able to participate in this endeavour is a huge opportunity and a privilege for any cosmologist.’

The Simons Observatory is a US-led collaboration, supported by the Simons Foundation and the Heising-Simons Foundation, with members in 85 institutions from 13 countries. Professor Angela Taylor, principal investigator of the Oxford team, explains: ‘Understanding the origins of the Universe by studying the CMB is a hugely important goal, and scientists from all over the world are collaborating to find the answers. This grant means that the UK will be at the forefront of some of the most exciting discoveries in cosmology in the next decade.’

Find out more about the UKRI funding for SO: