Researchers believe they have found the signal left in the sky by the super-rapid expansion of space that must have occurred just fractions of a second after everything came into being.
It takes the form of a distinctive twist in the oldest light detectable with telescopes.
The work will be scrutinised carefully, but already there is talk of a Nobel.
“This is spectacular,” commented Prof Marc Kamionkowski, from Johns Hopkins University.
“I’ve seen the research; the arguments are persuasive, and the scientists involved are among the most careful and conservative people I know,” he told BBC News.
The breakthrough was announced by an American team working on a project known as BICEP2.
This has been using a telescope at the South Pole to make detailed observations of a small patch of sky.
The aim has been to try to find a residual marker for “inflation” – the idea that the cosmos experienced an exponential growth spurt in its first trillionth, of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second.
Theory holds that this would have taken the infant Universe from something unimaginably small to something about the size of a marble. Space has continued to expand for the nearly 14 billion years since.
Inflation was first proposed in the early 1980s to explain some aspects of Big Bang Theory that appeared to not quite add up, such as why deep space looks broadly the same on all sides of the sky. The contention was that a very rapid expansion early on could have smoothed out any unevenness.
But inflation came with a very specific prediction – that it would be associated with waves of gravitational energy, and that these ripples in the fabric of space would leave an indelible mark on the oldest light in the sky – the famous Cosmic Microwave Background.
The BICEP2 team says it has now identified that signal. Scientists call it B-mode polarisation. It is a characteristic twist in the directional properties of the CMB. Only the gravitational waves moving through the Universe in its inflationary phase could have produced such a marker. It is a true “smoking gun”.
Speaking at the press conference to announce the results, Prof John Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and a leader of the BICEP2 collaboration, said: “This is opening a window on what we believe to be a new regime of physics – the physics of what happened in the first unbelievably tiny fraction of a second in the Universe.”
SOURCE: Jonathan Amos