in Space

UK joins mission to trace Universe back to the Big Bang

Posted 9 October 2023

The UK will play a crucial role in a landmark mission to trace patterns in the light from space, looking back almost to the Big Bang.

Above: Artist’s interpretation of LiteBIRD taking measurements in space. The Sun, Earth and Moon can be seen in the background, showing LiteBIRD is positioned at Lagrangian point L2.

The UK 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 polarisation 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 to design elements of LiteBIRD’s highly specialised science instruments and analyse their findings, and,
  • 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 Space Agency intends to invest a total £17 million throughout the life of the mission, slated for launch before 2030.

LiteBIRD is one of a growing number of space partnerships between UK and Japan.

During this week’s International Astronautical Congress in Baku in Azerbaijan, the UK also committed £1.7 million from its £20 million International Bilateral Fund to support Viasat’s in-orbit telemetry relay service, In-Range, for use on Mitsubishi Heavy Industry’s H3 launch vehicle. Due to take off from 2025, the new rocket is designed to offer a reliable, cost-effective and “easy-to-use” solution for commercial launches.

George Freeman MP, Minister for Space at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, said: "This initial £2.7 million investment through our UK Space Agency in the first phase of the LiteBIRD mission, led by Japan, to explore the origins of our Universe, is a great moment for both UK space science and technology and our deepening science, technology and innovation collaboration with Japan.  

"The LiteBIRD mission will use specialised telescope technology developed by Cardiff University and a consortium of UK universities pioneering world class deep space science and cutting-edge technology.   

"Together with the new Viasat and Mitsubishi project, this is a fantastic example of the rapid progress being made in UK-Japan collaboration since I visited last December, and in May, to negotiate and sign our new strategic R&D partnership."

Dr Paul Bate, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, said: "We expect LiteBIRD to be a game-changer for our understanding of cosmology, putting our best theories to the test as to what happened at the start of the Universe.  

"It’s incredibly exciting for the UK to be at the forefront of this mission, working together with international partners to push the boundaries of space science and answer some of humanity’s biggest questions."

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.

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, Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London, Oxford, Manchester and Sussex.  

Professors Peter Hargrave and Erminia Calabrese will lead the UK contribution from Cardiff University, where the team will design and build the optics for two telescopes, as well as the filters for the third, the Japanese-built low-frequency telescope.

Professor Hargrave, LiteBIRD UK Consortium Principal Investigator, said: "LiteBIRD will precisely investigate specific properties of this CMB light, to enable us to look for evidence of gravitational waves that should have been caused by inflation, directly after the big bang. This will confirm, or rule out, broad classes of inflation models, and greatly enhance our understanding of the origins of our Universe.  

"It’s great that unique technologies developed by Cardiff University and our UK collaborators can enable such a ground-breaking experiment."

Dr Kuninaka Hitoshi, DG, Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said: "The LiteBIRD mission, driven by international cooperation, is a pioneering endeavour aimed at unravelling the origins of our universe and Cosmic Inflation. It seeks to detect delicate signals within the cosmic microwave background radiation.  

"The invaluable contributions of the UK, including the unique technology of the metal mesh filters developed by Cardiff University, are vital to realise the high precision observations required for the LiteBIRD mission. We truly look forward to achieving remarkable scientific milestones through the partnership between Japan, UK, and the other nations."

The UK Space Agency has also provided funding for experts at the University of Aberdeen to work on the initial design for an instrument for a future JAXA Mars rover. Named Habit (Habitability: Brine Irradiation and Temperature), the device will investigate the habitability of the landing site, provide environmental information and demonstrate an In-Situ Resource Utilisation technology (production of liquid water) for future Mars exploration.   
Additional quotes

Professor Erminia Calabrese, Co-Principal Investigator and Science Lead of the LiteBIRD UK Consortium, said: "It’s really exciting to see the UK play a key role in one of the most fundamental experiments of the coming decade, contributing to a ground-breaking new understanding of the Big Bang and high-energy physics.  

"The satellite is designed to yield a major scientific breakthrough: a dramatically improved understanding of how the Universe began, targeting the physical mechanism behind cosmic inflation, either making a discovery or ruling out well-motivated inflationary models."

Professor Mike Edmunds, President of the Royal Astronomical Society said: "It is great to know that the UK will be participating in the exciting JAXA LiteBIRD cosmology mission. This satellite will investigate the mechanism of rapid inflation in the very, very early Universe - a fundamental and vitally important idea that has not yet been sufficiently tested. Having spent nearly all my academic career in Cardiff I am of course delighted that my colleagues will be closely involved in the design and build of components in the telescope’s optics."




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