“NSF awards up to $21.4M for design of next-gen telescopes to capture earliest moments of universe”, UChicago News

October 30, 2023

A new set of telescopes will be built at the NSF’s South Pole Station to map the light from the aftermath of the Big Bang in greater detail than ever before. Photo by Geoff Chen

The National Science Foundation has awarded $3.7 million to the University of Chicago for the first year of a grant that may provide up to $21.4 million for the final designs for a next-generation set of telescopes to map the light from the earliest moments of the universe—the Cosmic Microwave Background.

Led by the University of Chicago and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the collaboration seeks to build telescopes and infrastructure in both Antarctica and Chile to search for what are known as “primordial” gravitational waves—the vibrations from the Big Bang itself. It would also map the microwave light from the cosmos in incredible detail and reveal how the universe evolved over time, as well as investigate the mystery known as dark matter.

This award will fund the continuing designs for the telescopes and cameras, working towards construction readiness. The entire project, known as CMB-S4, is proposed to be jointly funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy; it is expected to cost on the order of $800M and to come fully online in the early 2030s. The collaboration currently involves 450 scientists from more than 100 institutions, spanning 20 countries.

“With these telescopes we will be testing our theory of how our entire universe came to be, but also looking at physics at the most extreme scales in a way we simply cannot do with particle physics experiments on Earth,” said John Carlstrom, the Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar Distinguished Service Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics and Physics, who serves as the project scientist for CMB-S4.

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