Ever since we all heard the exciting news that the BICEP2 experiment had detected “B-mode” polarization in the cosmic microwave background — just the kind we would expect to be produced by cosmic inflation at a high energy scale — the scientific community has been waiting on pins and needles for some kind of independent confirmation, so that we could stop adding “if it holds up” every time we waxed enthusiastic about the result. And we all knew that there was just such an independent check looming, from the Planck satellite. The need for some kind of check became especially pressing when some cosmologists made a good case that the BICEP2 signal may very well have been dust in our galaxy, rather than gravitational waves from inflation (Mortonson and Seljak; Flauger, Hill, and Spergel).
Now some initial results from Planck are in … and it doesn’t look good for gravitational waves. (Warning: I am not a CMB experimentalist or data analyst, so take the below with a grain of salt, though I tried to stick close to the paper itself.)
Planck intermediate results. XXX. The angular power spectrum of polarized dust emission at intermediate and high Galactic latitudes
Planck Collaboration: R. Adam, et al.
The polarized thermal emission from Galactic dust is the main foreground present in measurements of the polarization of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) at frequencies above 100GHz. We exploit the Planck HFI polarization data from 100 to 353GHz to measure the dust angular power spectra CEE,BBℓ over the range 40<ℓ<600. These will bring new insights into interstellar dust physics and a precise determination of the level of contamination for CMB polarization experiments. We show that statistical properties of the emission can be characterized over large fractions of the sky using Cℓ. For the dust, they are well described by power laws in ℓ with exponents αEE,BB=−2.42±0.02. The amplitudes of the polarization Cℓ vary with the average brightness in a way similar to the intensity ones. The dust polarization frequency dependence is consistent with modified blackbody emission with βd=1.59 and Td=19.6K. We find a systematic ratio between the amplitudes of the Galactic B- and E-modes of 0.5. We show that even in the faintest dust-emitting regions there are no "clean" windows where primordial CMB B-mode polarization could be measured without subtraction of dust emission. Finally, we investigate the level of dust polarization in the BICEP2 experiment field. Extrapolation of the Planck 353GHz data to 150GHz gives a dust power ℓ(ℓ+1)CBBℓ/(2π) of 1.32×10−2μK2CMB over the 40<ℓ<120 range; the statistical uncertainty is ±0.29 and there is an additional uncertainty (+0.28,-0.24) from the extrapolation, both in the same units. This is the same magnitude as reported by BICEP2 over this ℓ range, which highlights the need for assessment of the polarized dust signal. The present uncertainties will be reduced through an ongoing, joint analysis of the Planck and BICEP2 data sets.
We can unpack that a bit, but the upshot is pretty simple: Planck has observed the whole sky, including the BICEP2 region, although not in precisely the same wavelengths. With a bit of extrapolation, however, they can use their data to estimate how big a signal should be generated by dust in our galaxy. The result fits very well with what BICEP2 actually measured. It’s not completely definitive — the Planck paper stresses over and over the need to do more analysis, especially in collaboration with the BICEP2 team — but the simplest interpretation is that BICEP2’s B-modes were caused by local contamination, not by early-universe inflation.
Here’s the Planck sky, color-coded by amount of B-mode polarization generated by dust, with the BICEP2 field indicated at bottom left of the right-hand circle:
Every experiment is different, so the Planck team had to do some work to take their measurements and turn them into a prediction for what BICEP2 should have seen. Here is the sobering result, expressed (roughtly) as the expected amount of B-mode polarization as a function of angular size, with large angles on the left. (Really, the BB correlation function as a function of multipole moment.)
The light-blue rectangles are what Planck actually sees and attributes to dust. The black line is the theoretical prediction for what you would see from gravitational waves with the amplitude claimed by BICEP2. As you see, they match very well. That is: the BICEP2 signal is apparently well-explained by dust.
Of course, just because it could be dust doesn’t mean that it is. As one last check, the Planck team looked at how the amount of signal they saw varied as a function of the frequency of the microwaves they were observing. (BICEP2 was only able to observe at one frequency, 150 GHz.) Here’s the result, compared to a theoretical prediction for what dust should look like:
Again, the data seem to be lining right up with what you would expect from dust.
It’s not completely definitive — but it’s pretty powerful. BICEP2 did indeed observe the signal that they said they observed; but the smart money right now is betting that the signal didn’t come from the early universe. There’s still work to be done, and the universe has plenty of capacity for surprising us, but for the moment we can’t claim to have gathered information from quite as early in the history of the universe as we had hoped.