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Relics of the Big Bang

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Relics of the Big Bang

NASA's FUSE spacecraft will explore the "fossil record" of cosmology

FROM A NASA HQ PRESS RELEASE

UV montageJune 8, 1999: Scientists will soon have a new tool to search for the "fossil record" of the Big Bang and uncover clues about the evolution of the universe. Scheduled to launch June 23, NASA's Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer (FUSE) will observe nearby planets and the farthest reaches of the universe and will provide a detailed picture of the immense structure of our own Milky Way galaxy.

Right -- Lower left corner: Intense ultraviolet radiation from newly formed stars eats away at a nearby star forming cloud in the southern Milky Way. Center: Ultraviolet images of the Small Magellanic Cloud highlight concentrations of hot, newly formed stars and reveal the progress of recent star formation in that nearby irregular galaxy. Upper right corner: Stellar UV radiation delineates the spiral arms of a distant galaxy. UV pictures such as these must be taken above the Earth's absorbing atmosphere. The FUSE spacecraft, scheduled for launch later this month, will examine UV radiation from the cosmos to probe the mechanics of star formation and study the evolution of the Universe.

The FUSE mission's primary scientific focus will be the study of hydrogen and deuterium (a different form of hydrogen), which were created shortly after the Big Bang. With this information, astronomers in effect will be able to look back in time at the infant universe.

By examining these earliest relics of the birth of the universe, astronomers hope to better understand the processes that led to the formation and evolution of stars, including our solar system. Ultimately, scientists hope data from FUSE will allow them to make a huge leap of understanding about how the primordial elements were created and have been distributed since the beginning of time.

"We think that as stars age deuterium is destroyed," said NASA's Dr. George Sonneborn, Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD, the FUSE project scientist. "Mapping deuterium throughout the Milky Way will give us a better understanding of how elements are mixed, distributed and destroyed."

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"The big questions are these: Do we understand the origins of the universe, and do we understand how galaxies evolve?" said Dr. Kenneth Sembach, a FUSE science team member from the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD. "Because FUSE can observe ultraviolet light that other telescopes can't, we can test in unique ways how deuterium and other elements are circulated within galaxies. That in turn may test the limits of the Big Bang theory."

Among the cosmic questions FUSE will tackle are:

  • What were conditions like in the first few minutes after the Big Bang? Will studying the "fossil remnant" deuterium change current theories of the Big Bang?
  • How are the elements dispersed throughout galaxies, and how does this affect the way galaxies evolve?
  • What are the properties of the interstellar gas clouds out of which stars and planets form?
  • Does the Milky Way have a vast galactic fountain that gives birth to stars, spews hot gas, circulates elements and churns out cosmic material over and over?

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FUSE was developed for NASA by Johns Hopkins, which has the primary responsibility for all aspects of the project. NASA is responsible for the launch. FUSE is the first NASA mission of this scope that has been developed and operated entirely by a university. Dr. Warren Moos, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Johns Hopkins, is Principal Investigator for FUSE.

The 3,000-pound FUSE satellite consists of two sections: the spacecraft and the science instrument. The spacecraft, built by Orbital Sciences Corp., Germantown, MD, contains all elements necessary for powering and pointing the satellite. The spacecraft and the science instrument each have their own computers, which coordinate the activities of the satellite.

FUSE at KSCRight: This picture, from early April 1999, shows the FUSE satellite shortly after arrival at NASA/KSC for final pre-launch processing. FUSE was shipped by special truck from NASA/Goddard to Hangar AE at NASA/KSC, where it underwent final testing and verification (Photo: NASA)

FUSE will be launched from Cape Canaveral Air Station, FL, aboard a Boeing Delta II rocket into a circular orbit 477 miles (768 kilometers) above Earth, and will orbit about every 100 minutes. The satellite must operate on its own most of the time, moving from target to target, identifying star fields, centering objects in the spectrograph apertures and performing the observations. The three-year FUSE mission costs $204 million.

The FUSE science instrument, built by Johns Hopkins, consists of telescope mirrors, a spectrograph, which breaks ultraviolet light into its component colors for study, and an electronic guide camera. Johns Hopkins built the FUSE instrument in collaboration with the Canadian Space Agency, which provided the camera; the French Space Agency, which provided a component of the spectrograph; the University of Colorado, Boulder; the University of California, Berkeley; and Swales Aerospace, Beltsville, MD. The FUSE mission and science control center is located on the Johns Hopkins Homewood Campus, Baltimore, with support from Interface and Controls Systems and AlliedSignal Technical Services Corp., both of Columbia, MD. The Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD manages FUSE, one of the first missions in NASA's Origins program, for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, DC.

Web Links 

FUSE home page -- at Johns Hopkins University

FUSE web site -- at NASA/GSFC

NASA Origins Program -- What is the Origin of the Universe?

FUSE spacecraft will search for fossils of the Big Bang, NASA HQ press release, June 8, 1999

Primordial Deuterium and the Big Bang., Craig J. Hogan. From Scientific American, December 1996.

A Spiral Galaxy Gallery -- Astronomy Picture of the Day, March 14, 1998

The UV SMC from UIT -- Astronomy Picture of the Day, Dec. 20, 1996

Hot Stars in the Southern Milky Way -- Astronomy Picture of the Day, May 7, 1999

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For more information, please contact:
Dr. John M. Horack , Director of Science Communications
Source: NASA Press Release
Editor: Dr. Tony Phillips
Curator: Bryan Walls
NASA Official: John M. Horack