The University of Manchester will play a crucial role in a landmark mission to trace patterns in the light from space, looking back almost to the Big Bang, bringing us closer to understanding the nature of our Universe and how it began.
The Japanese-led LiteBIRD mission (‘Light satellite for the study of B-mode polarization and Inflation from cosmic background Radiation Detection’) will analyse variations in light left over from the Big Bang, to test whether the current theory of how our Universe expanded immediately after it was formed (cosmological inflation theory) is correct.
The UK Space Agency has committed an initial £2.7 million to the mission, which will fund a group of UK scientists, including from The University of Manchester, to design elements of LiteBIRD’s highly specialised science instruments and analyse their findings.
The cash will also cover production of the telescopes’ lenses and filters by Cardiff University, which is the only institution in the world with the expertise needed to make them.
The UK intends to invest a total £17 million throughout the life of the mission, slated for launch before 2030.
Prof Michael Brown, Co-Principal Investigator, and Head of Cosmology at The University of Manchester, said: “This is fantastic news for the UK. Now that we have major roles in two leading cosmology experiments, LiteBIRD and Simons Observatory, we can build on the already strong teams that exist in the UK and make major contributions to one of the most important and interesting fields of astrophysics.”
The theory of cosmological inflation predicts that “primordial gravitational waves” will be observable in the light left over from the very beginning of our Universe – the ‘cosmic microwave background’ (CMB). LiteBIRD plans to examine the pattern of B-mode polarisation in the CMB, to test this theory.
Astronomers at the University of Manchester will work on the data analysis team to separate the CMB radiation from all the other forms of radiation from our Galaxy and all other galaxies in the Universe, while mitigating instrumental effects in the data.
Prof Clive Dickinson, Manchester Principal Investigator for LiteBIRD UK, and Professor of Astrophysics at The University of Manchester, said: “I am delighted that the UK is formerly joining LiteBIRD, which puts us in the front seat for cosmological research on the international stage.
“The previous CMB space mission, ESA’s Planck satellite, for which The University of Manchester had played a major role, has become the gold standard in cosmology and I expect LiteBIRD to be the same in the 2030s.
“Furthermore, the huge amount of additional science that can be done with the superior space data cannot be overstated – we will be analysing the data for many years and we can only imagine what the new data may reveal.”
Coordinated by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), LiteBIRD will launch with a combination of high, mid, and low frequency telescopes to detect B-mode signals in CMB with unprecedented sensitivity, potentially proving or disproving cosmological inflation.
The UK is part of a European Consortium led by the French space agency CNES, who will deliver the high and mid frequency telescopes. Much of the optical design and component development will be led by Cardiff University with support from other UK universities including Cambridge, MSSL, UCL, Oxford and Sussex.
The University of Manchester has a strong history of CMB research going back to the late 1970s. Since then, Manchester has been involved in several world-leading experiments, leading up to immensely successful ESA Planck mission, that has revolutionised our view of the Universe.
LiteBIRD is the successor to Planck and the expertise learnt from previous missions will be invaluable.
Dr Stuart Harper, Post-Doctoral Researcher at The University of Manchester, said: “I’m excited to work on LiteBIRD. Much of my PhD and postdoctoral work has been focussed on understanding contaminating “foreground” emission for CMB data and also dealing with complicated instrumental errors in radio data. Both these things will be critical for the analysis of LiteBIRD data and therefore I look forward to using my skills within the international collaboration. It also gives me a real focus and long-term goals for my career.”
The University of Manchester is also leading the UK contribution to Simons Observatory: a ground-based experiment that will measure CMB polarization from the ground. These two world-leading experiments puts Manchester and the UK in a strong position for cosmological research over the next decade.