Origin of the Universe

Timeline of the universe


Cosmology researchers at JPL are investigating the origins and composition of the universe, beginning with its inflationary era. They are involved in the development and implementation of enabling detector technologies and instrumentation, and are using these technologies to observe the universe on large scales and study distant objects.


Current Research Tasks


Cosmology researchers at JPL are studying the history of the Universe from the Big Bang, through reionization era, up to the present day. Microwave observations from the Planck spacecraft and ground-based experiments such as BICEP 2 have provided knowledge of key cosmological parameters with unprecedented accuracy, and investigators are now searching for evidence of primordial gravitational waves from the Big Bang. The new technique of intensity mapping at frequencies from the IR to the radio should reveal the large-scale structure of the Universe throughout its history.

JPL cosmologists are also working to explain the nature of Dark Energy, a mysterious component responsible for the accelerated expansion of the Universe in recent times. For this they use ground-based facilities such as the Prime Focus Spectrograph on the Subaru Telescope, plan future missions such as Euclid or WFIRST, and develop advanced technologies for future space-based astrophysics missions. These technologies could provide new capabilities for sensitive astronomical observations and gather a broad range of information in all areas including photometry, polarization and spectroscopy. Researchers are also developing tools to study a rich and diverse set of astrophysical data obtained with a number of ground-based and space telescopes, including Hubble, Spitzer, Planck, WFIRST and the proposed SPHEREx missions.


Selected Research Topics



The Cosmic Microwave Background as observed by Planck with a picture of the spacecraft superimposed.

NASA had significant participation in the European Space Agency’s Planck mission; Planck used instruments developed at JPL. Designed to study ancient radiation from the Big Bang, the Planck space telescope aimed to better understand the origin of the Universe and the formation of galaxies. Planck’s precise cosmological measurements are a major step towards better constraining the origin of the Universe.  Analysis of Planck data has also highlighted numerous star-forming clouds across the Milky Way, and has uncovered a previously invisible population of billion-year-old galaxies shrouded in dust.




Plots of gravitational waves
These plots show the signals of gravitational waves detected by the twin LIGO observatories at Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington. The signals came from two merging black holes, each about 30 times the mass of our sun, 1.3 billion light-years away. The top two plots show data received at Livingston and Hanford, along with the predicted shapes for the waveform. These predicted waveforms show what two merging black holes should look like according to the equations of Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity, accounting for the instrument's ever-present noise. Time is plotted on the X-axis and strain on the Y-axis. Strain represents the fractional amount by which distances are distorted. Image Credit: Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab.

LIGO is a facility dedicated to the detection of cosmic gravitational waves and the measurement of these waves for scientific research. It consists of two widely separated ground-based installations in the states of Louisiana and Washington. LIGO has recently opened a new window on the sky with the detection of gravitational waves from merging binaries of stellar-mass black holes, and JPL researchers have been involved in developing the codes that search for these sources in the data streams.  LIGO views the high-frequency waves from transient phenomena, such as supernovae, and the final minutes of neutron star or black hole binary mergers.



SPHEREx is a proposed NASA Small Explorer mission designed to constrain the physics of inflation by:

  • studying its imprints on the three-dimensional large-scale distribution of matter
  • tracing the history of galactic light production through a deep multi-band measurement of large-scale clustering
  • investigating the abundance and composition of water and biogenic ices in the early phases of star and planetary disk formation

SPHEREx would measure near-infrared spectra between 0.7 and 5 microns across the entire sky.