Grand design: A CMU pair teams up to map the universe
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Remember the morose boy in Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" who stopped doing his homework because the universe was expanding? He was depressed because he feared the universe would reach a point where it will fall back and collapse on itself.
That boy would be bummed out by what we've learned about cosmic expansion ever since. The universe continues to expand, of course -- faster than originally thought -- but now a mysterious force that scientists call "dark energy" has been added to the cosmological mix.
Tracking the rate of expansion by culling data from observation of individual stars and galaxies and calculating from that is one way to explore the mystery, but it is cumbersome.
A Carnegie Mellon University professor and a doctoral student are part of a scientific team that has developed what they believe to be a more efficient way to chart cosmic expansion. The scientists say that using a technique they call "intensity mapping" will help them develop a three-dimensional portrait of huge swaths of the universe.
CMU astrophysicist Jeff Peterson and student Kevin Bandura believe that by measuring radio waves from hydrogen coming from unknown galaxies, they'll be able to figure out what dark energy is and why the expansion of the universe is accelerating.
After successfully testing the theory of intensity mapping at the Robert Byrd Telescope in West Virginia, the CMU scientists and their colleagues are eager to build their own $20 million listening lab and telescope in a remote outpost to collect data.
In contrast to the choice of the boy in "Annie Hall" who stopped doing his homework, the hard work of understanding what's really going on in the cosmos is about to begin.
First Published July 27, 2010 12:00 am