Scientists say they have spotted echoes of the Big Bang for the first time, a discovery some regard as the “Holy Grail” of astronomy.
The extraordinary find is already being hailed as Nobel Prize-worthy.
The work would boost our understanding of the universe and how it was born 14 billion years ago.
Astrophysicists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics say they have detected primordial gravitational waves. These are miniscule ripples in the fabric of the universe left over from its first moments.
John Kovac, the scientist who led the research at the centre, said: “Detecting this signal is one of the most important goals in cosmology today.”
The existence of the waves backs up the theory of cosmic inflation, which says that in the first moments of its existence the universe expanded faster than the speed of light.
The signal was detected by a specialist telescope at the South Pole (BICEP2) and was far stronger than predicted.
Research team member Dr Clem Pryke, of the University of Minnesota said: “This has been like looking for a needle in a haystack, but instead we found a crowbar.”
Although gravitational waves were predicted by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, they have never been observed before.
The amazing results will now be confirmed by other research teams.
Astrophysicist Professor Avi Loeb, from Harvard University, said: “This work offers new insights into some of our most basic questions.
“Why do we exist? How did the universe begin?
“These results are not only a smoking gun for inflation, they also tell us when inflation took place and how powerful the process was.”