Mysterious Substance Dark Matter in Focus at Texas A&M Workshop
A 2010 gamma-ray map of the Milky Way recorded over the course of 3 months. Astrophysicists used the Fermi satellite's spectrum of gamma background radiation -- the hazy blue beneath the bright beacons in the foreground of this image -- to put limits on the possible masses of dark matter particles.(NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration.)
Mysterious Substance Dark Matter in Focus at Texas A&M Workshop
Scientists from around the world will join Texas A&M University's top experts in high-energy physics and astrophysics for a three-day workshop beginning Friday (March 8) that will delve into dark matter, the unknown substance that makes up nearly a quarter of the universe.
Unlocking the mystery of dark matter means unlocking the mystery of the universe -- an 80-year-old odyssey currently surrounded by buzz, as Nobel laureate Samuel Ting has said he will make an important announcement soon about his research into dark matter.
It's an epic space race that Texas A&M is uniquely positioned to be a key player in, says high-energy theorist Bhaskar Dutta, thanks to Department of Physics and Astronomy researchers who are involved in every known method and international experiment (see list below) currently encompassing the high-stakes global hunt.
"We only understand 4 percent of the universe right now," said Dutta, interim director of Mitchell Institute. "Once we know this 23 percent that is dark matter, we're hoping it may give us a lead into understanding the remaining 73 percent, which is dark energy. Once we understand it all, then we'll know the past, present and future of the universe."
Such a discovery could be impactful beyond a basic understanding of the universe, Dutta notes.
"When quantum mechanics was discovered, no one knew that one day, you'd use the microwave at home to heat up your food," Dutta said. "No one can predict during those moments of discovery where this will eventually lead. Once we start knowing this stuff, there will be spinoffs."
Dark matter -- named such because it is an unknown that does not interact with light -- can't be seen directly by telescopes and doesn't emit or absorb light at any significant level. It's not like any "normal" matter such as stars, planets or any living or nonliving material on Earth. It's not even a black hole.
The search for understanding dark matter, Dutta said, focuses on two questions: What is it, and how was it created?
Scientists around the world are trying to answer these questions using three methods: direct detection, indirect detection and a collider method. In direct detection, researchers wait for dark matter particles to hit a detector. Through indirect detection, experiments search for the products of the annihilation of dark matter particles. In the collider method, dark matter particles are produced when protons are collided and observed as missing energy.
"Most other places are strong in a particular method," Dutta said. "Texas A&M is strong in all of them. There's a beautiful collaboration going on here among the theorists and the experimentalists."
Dutta said he hopes the gathering becomes an annual event to study dark matter and trade theories within a small, focused group.
Following are brief descriptions for some of the major international dark matter collaborations featuring Texas A&M physicists that will be represented at the Mitchell Institute's March 8-10 Dark Matter Workshop:
Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS-02) Experiment
This galactic $1.5 billion endeavor involving 500 physicists from 16 countries and nearly 60 institutions worldwide centers on a state-of-the-art particle physics detector mounted on the International Space Station (ISS) in 2009, when it began a decade-long mission in the unique environment of space to record and measure data from high-energy cosmic rays. Described as the Hubble Telescope for charged particles in the universe, AMS is equipped with a spectrometer similar in capability to the ones operating at CERN's Large Hadron Collider but different because it is in orbit well beyond the shielding effects of Earth's atmosphere.
Collider Detector at Fermilab (CDF) Experiment
The Texas A&M collider group was a founding member institution of the CDF experiment at Fermilab in the early 1980s. CDF is one of the two Fermilab Tevatron experiments that sat at the high-energy frontier for the last 20 years, colliding high-energy protons and anti-protons. It discovered the heaviest quark, the top quark in the mid-1990s, and in July 2012 played an important role in the one of the world's most tangible particle physics discoveries to date: evidence of a Higgs boson-like particle. It continues to play an active role in the search for dark matter and other new particles.
Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) Experiment
In 2005 Texas A&M's experimental collider high energy group brought its decades of combined collider expertise to the Collider Muon Solenoid (CMS) collaboration, one of the two flagship Large Hadron Collider (LHC) experiments seeking to validate long-held theories of particle physics and to identify the tiniest particles in the universe along with their critical properties. Beyond groundbreaking work that went into last summer's Higgs-like particle discovery as well as the initial design and construction of CMS, the Texas A&M team continues to provide research and development vital to the LHC's and overall discipline's future. Today the CMS collaboration is roughly 25 members strong based in College Station as well as at CERN and at Fermilab, the U.S. headquarters for CMS.
Cryogenic Dark Matter Search (CDMS) Experiment
The CDMS experiment, located a half-mile underground at the Soudan mine in northern Minnesota and managed by the United States Department of Energy's Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, features more than 50 scientists from 18 international institutions and has been searching for dark matter since 2003. The experiment uses very sophisticated detector technology and advanced analysis techniques to enable cryogenically cooled (almost absolute zero temperature at -460 degrees F) Germanium and Silicon targets to search for the rare recoil of dark matter particles. Texas A&M is developing the larger, more advanced detectors needed for the project's current phase, dubbed the SuperCDMS experiment.
Large Underground Xenon (LUX) Experiment
This experiment seeks to find the elusive dark matter particle using the element xenon in liquid form to highlight the particles if they pass through state-of-the-art detector equipment assembled during the past three years within the Sanford Laboratory, located 4,850 feet below the Earth's surface within the repurposed Homestake gold mine in South Dakota's Black Hills. The large-scale experiment, which features 7,000 kilograms (7 tons) of xenon versus the typical 350 found in most labs, is set to begin collecting data for roughly a year once the xenon is purified and is expected to conclude after subsequent analysis and verification by late 2015.
Watch this You Tube video by MinutePhysics, which does a nice job explaining the basics of dark matter:
Contact: Vimal Patel, (979) 845-7246 or email@example.com or Dr. Bhaskar Dutta, (979) 845-5359 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Heart of the Matter
Texas A&M physicists are key players in international experiments investigating all sides of the dark matter mystery, from direct and indirect detection to collider methods.
Texas A&M high-energy theorist Bhaskar Dutta, interim director of the Mitchell Institute and co-organizer of the 2013 Texas A&M Dark Matter Workshop.