Potential for groundbreaking new discoveries in space in 2012

Weekly astronomy column from DRAO's astrophysicist Ken Tapping

Over the last few years our understanding of how our universe works has expanded enormously. There has been dramatic progress in establishing how the unimaginably big relates to the incredibly small, what atoms are made of and what forces hold them together, and how these relate to the birth of the universe and its evolution. However, as usual in science, increasing understanding introduces even stranger puzzles. Now we have the puzzles of dark matter, which helps hold things together, and dark energy, which is making the universe expand more and more rapidly. The story starts at the Big Bang, almost 14 billion years ago.

In the beginning the universe was too hot for anything solid to exist. Then, as it expanded and cooled, the first ingredient elementary particles for building the atoms in stars, planets and us eventually formed. These are believed to fall into three classes, referred to as quarks, leptons and bosons. Dark matter and dark energy probably appeared the same time. Today, in our cooler universe, any remnants of those original ingredients are hard to find. Our current idea depends critically upon one particle we have not found yet. It was first postulated by Peter Higgs and his coworkers, and has become known as the Higgs Boson.

The only way we can get some of these is to take matter and subject it to the conditions that existed a few microseconds after the Big Bang. Luckily, today we have a machine that can do that. It is known as the Large Hadron Collider, and is located just outside Geneva, Switzerland. In a 27 km circular track particles are accelerated to almost the speed of light and driven head-on into particles coming the same speed in the opposite direction. In the last couple of months experimenters have found the first real evidence that there really might be a Higgs Boson.  This year we might actually get to find out whether we are right or if we need to think again.

In the 18th century Isaac Newton came up with the physical laws needed to understand the movements of planets, the flight of cannonballs and of course falling apples. His ideas are still serving us well, helping us to navigate the Solar System and many other things. By the end of the 19th century it was becoming apparent that under certain conditions Newton’s ideas do not work, and Einstein came up with a theory that explained things better. One of the foundations of his “Theory of Relativity” is that no material object can exceed the speed of light. However, a recent experiment using the Large Hadron Collider and a facility in Italy indicated the presence of particles moving faster than light. A repetition of the experiment got the same surprising result. Einstein’s ideas have so far survived many different tests, and have become fundamental to our understanding of the universe, so there is a lot of scepticism out there regarding these new observations. New experiments are planned to make sure of this result. If it is correct, physics will get a kick in the pants similar to the one it got at the beginning of the 20th Century, when Einstein and others turned physics upside down. This should be an exciting year. Here’s to 2012!

Jupiter dominates the southern sky during the night. Mars rises around 10 p.m., Saturn around 2am. Venus is spectacular in the Southwest after sunset. The Moon will reach last quarter on the 16th.

Ken Tapping is an astronomer with the National Research Council’s Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, and is based at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, Penticton.