Spectral distortions of the microwave background

cobepanelMeasurements made by the COBE FIRAS satellite (shown above) showed that the cosmic microwave background (CMB) is a blackbody to exquisite (10^{-5}) precision. It is known, however, that deviations from this perfect blackbody must exist, at the level of (10^{-9}\to 10^{-8}), due to the redshifting of electrons in the expanding universe (and the subsequent energy loss by photons through Compton scattering) and the diffusive damping of acoustic waves in the primordial plasma. These processes inject energy at redshifts (z<2\times 10^{6}), when the processes keeping the plasma in perfect equilibrium have decoupled. Detecting CMB spectral distortions would thus directly probe empirically unexplored epochs of cosmic time. The technology now exists to detect these small spectral distortions, and there is excitement in the community for a satellite concept called PIXIE, which would target primordial spectral distortions, signatures of reionization, and large-scale foreground-subtracted measurements of primordial B-mode polarization.

In my own work (described below), I have identified 3 new sources of CMB spectral distortions, and on the advocacy side, was an organizer of the workshop on CMB spectral distortions held at the KICP last year. In the future, I’d like to develop techniques to remove foreground contaminants from spectral distortion measurements, explore the possibility of robust inflationary spectral distortion predictions using effective field theory,  better understand the interplay between the radiation field and recombining atoms, and explore the impact of early cosmic structure formation on small scales on the distortion signal.