Nearly three years ago, an intrepid group of astronomers – including two UCSB researchers – lofted a giant helium balloon into the sky.
The balloon, borrowed from NASA, served as a platform for launching a probe into the Milky Way galaxy with the aim of collecting data samples of the heat that radiates from certain stars. What the scientists ended up discovering, however, was quite unexpected.
The researchers found that their ARCADE probe – an Absolute Radiometer for Cosmology, Astrophysics and Diffuse Emission – was prevented from completing its original mission due to the presence of a mysterious and powerful cosmic noise.
Many objects in space can generate radio waves. At a very low level, these waves are a common occurrence in the Milky Way and ordinarily produce a faint background radio emission that can be detected by certain scientific apparatuses.
What has baffled the scientists behind the ARCADE mission, however, is that the powerful static discovered by the probe blasts through space six times louder than anyone ever expected, team leader Alan Kogut said.
“The universe really threw us a curve,” Kogut, a NASA astrophysicist, said in a press release. “Instead of the faint signal we hoped to find, here was this booming noise six times louder than anyone had predicted.”
Yet even more perplexing to the ARCADE team is the deafening cosmic static’s apparent lack of a source.
A study was done to ascertain what may have caused the readings, but it was determined that the signal could not be explained by radio galaxies, instrument error or any other source.
The results open up new questions for astronomers, since there is currently no explanation for existence of the cosmic static. Even if all of the known galaxies in the universe combined their radio emission, they could still not generate the signal detected by the NASA balloon.
UCSB Physics professor Philip M. Lubin said that the static provides scientists with a new cosmic puzzle to unlock.
“It seems as though we live in a darkened room and every time we turn the lights on and explore, we find something new,” Lubin said in a press release. “The universe continues to amaze us and provide us with new mysteries. It is like a large puzzle that we are slowly given pieces to so that we can eventually see through the fog of our confusion.”
Lubin said that it is not known if the waves are from a single source or from various locations. The noise, he said, may point to an event which occurred around 7 billion years ago when galaxies were first being formed.
According to Lubin, the facilities needed to measure the waves would have to be unbelievably huge, as the waves are 100,000 times smaller in wavelength compared to the visible light spectrum. To accurately detect these waves would require tools capable of measuring at a very high resolution, he said.