UBC Professors Win $3 Million Physics Prize for Space Probe

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A University of British Columbia (UBC) professor has been awarded a 2018 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for his work on a satellite that tracked some of the earliest eras of the universe.

UBC’s Gary Hinshaw, along with colleagues from NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) team including another UBC professor Mark Halpern, took home the $3 million USD prize on Sunday for mapping out the early universe. The findings cemented the “standard model” of cosmology, which sees the universe as a flat area dominated by dark matter and dark energy.

Hinshaw and his team were recognized for years of hard work that finally culminated in concrete findings. The satellite blasted into orbit in 2001 and at the time the WMAP team was not even sure what they might find—they just knew they wanted to measure radiation called cosmic microwave background, which is the heat left over from the big bang.

“You build this instrument, you test it on the ground, you make sure it’s going to survive the rigours of a rocket launch and that it’s going to deploy it when you deploy it from the rocket, and if it doesn’t, you’ve just wasted 10 years of your life, because you don’t get a second chance,” Hinshaw told the Canadian Press.

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Gary Hinshaw (far right) stands with other Breakthrough Prize winners.

The satellite measured the heat radiation left over from the big bang in order to paint a baby picture of the universe, according to Hinshaw. The prize was awarded due to the certainty of the probe’s information, including a confirmation that the universe is 13.77 billion years old and that only five per cent of it is made up of chemical elements found in the periodic table.

The header image above details a picture of the early universe that was created from nine years worth of data. It shows 13.77 billion-year-old temperature changes that align with how galaxies formed in the very earliest stages of the universe.

The header image above details a picture of the early universe that was created from nine years worth of data. It shows 13.77 billion-year-old temperature changes that align with how galaxies formed in the very earliest stages of the universe.

The findings did not come all at once. Hinshaw and his colleagues published 13 papers over five months on the first year worth of results from the satellite.

The Breakthrough Prize board consists of tech luminaries like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and 23andMe founder Anne Wojcicki, who also contributed to the prize pool. Hinshaw and four other WMAP team leaders will share $1.5 million while the other 22 researchers will split the remaining $1.5 million.

Hinshaw will use the money to continue funding research while also bringing on young scientists to help dive into what the probe learned. There is a lot to learn about dark energy and what role it plays in the universe still.

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