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In physical cosmology the inflationary epoch was the period in the evolution of the early universe when, according to inflation theory, the universe underwent an extremely rapid exponential expansion. This rapid expansion increased the linear dimensions of the early universe by a factor of at least 1026 (and possibly a much larger factor), and so increased its volume by a factor of at least 1078. Expansion by a factor of 1026 is equivalent to expanding an object 1 nanometer (10−9 m, about half the width of a molecule of DNA) in length to one approximately 10.6 light years (about 62 trillion miles) long.
The expansion is thought to have been triggered by the phase transition that marked the end of the preceding grand unification epoch at approximately 10−36 seconds after the Big Bang. One of the theoretical products of this phase transition was a scalar field called the inflaton field. As this field settled into its lowest energy state throughout the universe, it generated a repulsive force that led to a rapid expansion of space. This expansion explains various properties of the current universe that are difficult to account for without such an inflationary epoch.
It is not known exactly when the inflationary epoch ended, but it is thought to have been between 10−33 and 10−32 seconds after the Big Bang. The rapid expansion of space meant that elementary particles remaining from the grand unification epoch were now distributed very thinly across the universe. However, the huge potential energy of the inflaton field was released at the end of the inflationary epoch, repopulating the universe with a dense, hot mixture of quarks, anti-quarks and gluons as it entered the electroweak epoch.
On 17 March 2014, astrophysicists of the BICEP2 collaboration announced the detection of inflationary gravitational waves in the B-mode power spectrum, providing the first clear experimental evidence for cosmological inflation and the Big Bang. However, on 19 June 2014, lowered confidence in confirming the cosmic inflation findings was reported.
A preprint released by the Planck team in September 2014, eventually accepted in 2016, provided the most accurate measurement yet of dust, concluding that the signal from dust is the same strength as that reported from BICEP2. On January 30, 2015, a joint analysis of BICEP2 and Planck data was published and the European Space Agency announced that the signal can be entirely attributed to dust in the Milky Way. In 2015, the BICEP2, Keck Array and Planck data was combined within a joint analysis; a March 2015 publication in Physical Review Letters set a limit on the tensor-to-scalar ratio of r < 0.12.[further explanation needed]
- Inflation (cosmology) – Theory of rapid universe expansion
- Big Bang – Cosmological model
- Chronology of the universe – Events since the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago
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