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Astronomers discover echoes of expansion after Big Bang

Waves of gravity that yield clues about the early life of the universe have been detected by US scientists. Discovery of the galactic ripples, already hailed as a major find, could yield a Nobel Prize.

US researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics announced on Monday that the gravitational waves had been detected for the first time.

The presence of the waves, if confirmed by other experts, could provide answers to an unproved part of Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity. Scientists have described the cosmic undulations as "the first tremors of the big bang."

The waves indicate a "rapid growth spurt" 14 billion years ago, with their discovery hailed as the "first direct evidence of cosmic inflation."

"Detecting this signal is one of the most important goals in cosmology today. A lot of work by a lot of people has led up to this point," said John Kovac, leader of the collaborative project.

Clear, open sky

The discovery was made using the Bicep 2 telescope stationed at the South Pole, which measures some of the oldest light in the universe. The site "is the closest you can get to space and still be on the ground," said Kovac.

"It's one of the driest and clearest locations on Earth, perfect for observing the faint microwaves from the Big Bang."

The telescope looked at an area of sky known as the "Southern Hole," outside the Milky Way galaxy, where there is little extra-galactic material that could interfere with observations.

Looking back in time

Experts looked at the background microwave radiation, detecting the faint glow of small fluctuations that give clues about the state of the early universe. What they found was evidence of the gravity waves that rippled across the universe 380,000 years after the big bang.

"It's mind-boggling to go looking for something like this and actually find it," Clem Pryke, associate professor at the University of Minnesota, told reporters.

The discovery could confirm an integral connection between relativity and the conceptual field of quantum mechanics. Theoretical physicist Alan Guth, who proposed the idea of inflation in 1980, described the latest study as being "definitely worthy of a Nobel Prize."

rc/ccp (AFP, AP, Reuters)