Researchers say they have spotted evidence that a split second after the big bang, the newly formed universe ballooned out at a pace so astonishing that it left behind ripples in the fabric of the cosmos.
If confirmed, experts said, the discovery would be a major advance in the understanding of the early universe. Although many scientists already believed that an initial, extremely rapid growth spurt happened, they have long sought the type of evidence cited in the new study.
The results reported Monday emerged after researchers peered into the faint light that remains from the big bang of nearly 14 billion years ago.
The find "gives us a window on the universe at the very beginning," when it was far less than one-trillionth of a second old, said theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State University, who was not part of the study.
Right after the big bang, the universe was a hot soup of particles. It took about 380,000 years to cool enough that the particles could form atoms, then stars and galaxies. Billions of years later, planets formed from gas and dust that were orbiting stars.
The findings were announced by a collaboration that included researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the University of Minnesota, Stanford University, the California Institute of Technology and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Astronomers scanned about 2 percent of the sky for three years with a telescope at the South Pole, looking for a pattern in light waves within the faint microwave glow left over from the big bang. The pattern has long been considered evidence of rapid growth, but this is its first reported detection.