Lunar and Planetary Institute
Lunar and Planetary Institute



NASA Scientist Receives 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics

COBE SpacecraftOctober 3, 2006
Source:  Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

COBE Spacecraft

This year the Physics Prize is awarded for work that looks back into the infancy of the Universe and attempts to gain some understanding of the origin of galaxies and stars. It is based on measurements made with the help of the COBE satellite launched by NASA in 1989.

The COBE results provided increased support for the Big Bang scenario for the origin of the Universe, as this is the only scenario that predicts the kind of cosmic microwave background radiation measured by COBE. These measurements also marked the inception of cosmology as a precise science. It was not long before it was followed up, for instance by the WMAP satellite, which yielded even clearer images of the background radiation. Very soon the European Planck satellite will be launched in order to study the radiation in even greater detail.

According to the Big Bang scenario, the cosmic microwave background radiation is a relic of the earliest phase of the Universe. Immediately after the big bang itself, the Universe can be compared to a glowing "body" emitting radiation in which the distribution across different wavelengths depends solely on its temperature. The shape of the spectrum of this kind of radiation has a special form known as blackbody radiation. When it was emitted the temperature of the Universe was almost 3,000 degrees Centigrade. Since then, according to the Big Bang scenario, the radiation has gradually cooled as the Universe has expanded. The background radiation we can measure today corresponds to a temperature that is barely 2.7 degrees above absolute zero. The Laureates were able to calculate this temperature thanks to the blackbody spectrum revealed by the COBE measurements.

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NASA Press release
UC Berkeley Press Release

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Last updated January 30, 2008