University of British Columbia scientists in Antarctica have launched a telescope that will hopefully reveal what happened at the very beginning of the Big Bang.

SPIDER — an instrument fitted with six telescopes bolted together and attached to a helium balloon — launched on Dec. 31, said Mark Halpern, a member of the SPIDER team and a UBC professor with the department of physics and astronomy.

SPIDER will attempt to find patterns of polarizations that could have only been made in primordial light in the fractions of a second after the Big Bang. 

If it finds these patterns, "it would be a smoking gun of how the universe began," Halpern said on CBC's On The Coast

Halper said scientists theorize that during the Big Bang, there was an "unbelievable expansion of the universe ... that the whole universe came to be in a tiny fraction of a second out of something that at the start was way less than a grain of sand, and then stopped expanding."

The telescope weighs about the same as a Ford Explorer and is attached to an inflatable helium balloon that is roughly the the size of a professional hockey arena. It will remain airborne for 20 days at an altitude of 36 kilometres, cruising on the circumpolar winds that circle the coast of Antarctica.

SPIDER telescope

SPIDER was shipped from Canada, where it was built over the course of a decade, to Antarctica (Zigmund Kermish)

The puzzle for scientists is understanding why the universe, which is so old, didn't fly apart or collapse, Halpern said.

"If it kept expanding, it would now be empty ... It would be so expanded that the number of atoms per cubic metre would be uninteresting."

SPIDER was shipped from Canada, where it was built over the course of a decade. Researchers had to break it up into pieces and then put it back together on site.

The researchers chose Antarctica for two reasons — if there was an accident and the telescope fell down, there would be minimal harm to humans, and by riding the circumpolar wind, SPIDER would land back roughly where it started.