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By Mike Wall, Senior Writer   |   March 17, 2014 10:45am ET

Astronomers have found the first direct evidence of cosmic inflation, the theorized dramatic expansion of the universe that put the “bang” in the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago, new research suggests.

If it holds up, the landmark discovery — which also confirms the existence of hypothesized ripples in space-time known as gravitational waves — would give researchers a much better understanding of the Big Bang and its immediate aftermath.

BICEP 2 Sunset
The sun sets behind BICEP2 (in the foreground) and the South Pole Telescope (in the background).
Credit: Steffen Richter (Harvard University)

“If it is confirmed, then it would be the most important discovery since the discovery, I think, that the expansion of the universe is accelerating,” Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb, who is not a member of the study team, told Space.com, comparing the finding to a 1998 observation that opened the window on mysterious dark energy and won three researchers the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics. [The Big Bang to Now in 10 Easy Steps]

A team led by John Kovac, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, is announcing the discovery today (March 17), unveiling results that have been submitted to the prestigious journal Nature. Nature released a video describing the cosmic inflation discovery earlier today. Kovac’s team will also discuss the results in a news conference today at 12 p.m. EDT (1600 GMT); you can watch it by going here: http://www.cfa.harvard.edu/news/news_conferences.html

To understand just what the detection of an inflation “smoking gun” would mean, a little background about the universe’s first instants is in order.

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