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Published June 30, 2021
A University of Wyoming faculty member has received a $240,000 U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) grant that will be used to determine how to schedule observations of spectra of more than 30 million galaxies to be able to study dark energy.
“A major unsolved scientific mystery is the relatively recent onset of an accelerated expansion of our cosmos,” says Adam Myers, an associate professor in the UW Department of Physics and Astronomy. “Characterizing and understanding this strange, unexpected acceleration, which is often called ‘dark energy,’ remain one of the most important goals in high energy physics.”
The U.S. DOE recently announced $93 million in funding for 71 research projects that will spur new discoveries in high energy physics. The projects -- housed at 50 colleges and universities across 29 states -- explore the basics of energy science that underlie technological advancements in medicine, computing, energy technologies, manufacturing, national security and more.
Projects selected by the DOE cover a wide range of topics at the frontiers of particle physics, including Higgs boson, neutrinos, dark matter, dark energy, quantum theory and the search for new physics.
Myers’ grant runs 34 months, starting July 1 and ending April 30, 2024. The grant provides 48 total months of salary for Ph.D. students. Funds will be divided between two UW Ph.D. students, Myers says.
To conduct his research, Myers will use the recently completed Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI), housed on the Nicholas U. Mayall Telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, Ariz.
DESI uses computer-controlled positioners to precisely place optical fibers at almost 5,000 locations in the focal plane of a 4-meter telescope, which provides simultaneous spectra of thousands of distant galaxies. In May 2021, DESI began a survey that will obtain spectra of more than 30 million galaxies to be able to study dark energy.
“This is a remarkable achievement that will produce, by far, the largest sample of extragalactic spectra ever assembled,” says Myers, who has been working on targeting software for the DESI survey for more than five years. “For context, DESI is so technologically advanced that UW’s principal telescope, the Wyoming Infrared Observatory, would require tens of thousands of years to conduct the DESI survey.”
Myers says little is known about the underlying, theoretical properties of dark energy, but researchers continue to analyze the expansion of our universe to try to glean new observational insights into the nature of cosmic acceleration.
To study how different parts of the cosmos are moving relative to each other, researchers need to make huge maps of vast volumes of our universe, Myers says. Such maps are assembled by obtaining spectra of extensive numbers of objects -- known as extragalactic sources -- in the sky that are beyond the edge of the galaxy. These extragalactic sources include different types of galaxies, such as Luminous Red Galaxies, Emission Line Galaxies and quasars, which Myers describes as “the luminous hearts of very distant galaxies that are powered by matter falling into extremely massive black holes.”
“With enough measurements of the movement of extragalactic objects at different times throughout the history of our universe, researchers hope to better constrain any subtle changes in cosmic acceleration, yielding new insights into the properties of dark energy,” he says.
During the DESI survey, Myers and his research group will collaborate with the DESI operations team, which determines how to schedule DESI observations and monitor the overall progress of the survey.
Specifically, Myers will be responsible for overseeing which objects in the sky DESI has targeted and will target.
For example, the most distant quasars are particularly useful for mapping the universe, as they can be used to trace gas in front of each of the quasars to create a detailed, 3D cosmological map. These quasars are, therefore, scheduled to receive additional observations as the DESI survey progresses. Myers’ team will be responsible for maintaining the code that determines which quasars are sufficiently distant to receive additional attention.
Additionally, DESI has the capability of overriding its regular schedule to observe particularly interesting objects of interest to the high energy physics community, such as the electromagnetic counterparts to gravitational waves. Myers will be responsible for adding such new “objects of interest” to the DESI observational ledger, and ensuring such new targets do not interfere with the overall, dark energy-related science goals of the DESI survey.
“Particle physics plays a role in many major innovations of the 21st century and, to keep our competitive edge, America must invest in the scientists and engineers that are advancing basic physical science today to create the breakthroughs of tomorrow,” says Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm. “The Department of Energy is proud to be the nation’s leading funder of physical sciences, leading to life-changing medicines, technologies and solutions that create a better future.”
Serving as a cornerstone of America’s science efforts, DOE’s High Energy Physics program plays a major role in nurturing top scientific talent, and building and sustaining the nation’s scientific workforce. For example, the pharmaceutical industry uses X-ray beams -- created by DOE’s particle accelerators -- to develop more effective drugs to fight disease, and DOE’s particle accelerators helped create the heat shrink-wrap used by households and businesses across the world to keep food and produce fresh.
The High Energy Physics program’s principal goal is to provide a deeper understanding of how our universe works at its most fundamental level. Particle accelerators and other tools developed in pursuing this goal often meet other needs of society.
The Office of High Energy Physics within the DOE Office of Science manages the projects.
The full list of projects and more information can be found here.