Happy new year from the Cosmic Frontier

Craig Hogan

Craig Hogan, director of the Center for Particle Astrophysics, wrote this week’s column.

In time for the holidays, our friends in Chile received a big wooden box from Fermilab with a really nice, big, shiny digital camera: one of the largest cameras ever made, with more than half a billion cryogenically-cooled pixels and a beautiful wide-field lens a meter across. Parts of this giant Dark Energy Camera have been arriving in the Chilean Andes over the last year and are now in the mountaintop dome at Cerro Tololo, ready for assembly.

The camera will be mounted on the 4-meter Blanco telescope and take data for the Dark Energy Survey, the widest, deepest survey of the sky ever made. Last year, three scientists received the Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering the accelerated expansion of our universe, attributed to a mysterious force we call dark energy. It’s no coincidence that their prizewinning work also started with images from the Blanco telescope, one of the best sites in the world to peer deep into the heavens. Will the Dark Energy Survey now discover how dark energy actually works?

Across the Andes, in Argentina, our Pierre Auger Observatory collaborators celebrated their summery new year by capturing light flashes caused by the world’s highest energy particles—a wonderful display of subatomic fireworks, if you have Auger’s eyes to see the cosmic-ray showers in Earth’s atmosphere. Will the observatory move closer this year to discovering the source of these ultra-high-energy cosmic rays?

Scientists of the COUPP dark-matter experiment rang in the new year with plenty of bubbly—or, more precisely, bubble chambers. The 4-kilogram COUPP chamber recently shattered new records for limits on some properties of dark matter particles, and this year, the 60-kilogram COUPP chamber will start recording bubbles from dark-matter candidates in the deep SNOLAB mine in Canada.

Fermilab’s other dark-matter experiments expect to have a great new year as well. SuperCDMS will operate its new, wintry-cold, zero-background iZIP detectors in the Soudan mine in Minnesota, and Darkside is preparing its ultra-pure liquid-argon detector for operations at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory, located deep under a mountain east of Rome. Who will be the first to have firm evidence for dark-matter particles? Might we be celebrating with some real bubbly before the year is out?

Back home, here on the Fermilab prairie, the members of the Holometer team have been busily bolting together a shiny new machine, like parents on Christmas morning. They installed 40-meter-long outdoor vacuum tubes in time to beat the winter storms. They are now indoors working on the precision optics and fast electronics that will measure whether spacetime wobbles with a tiny bit of quantum tipsiness. The Holometer will look for a billionth of a billionth of a meter deviation in the flash of a microsecond. By the time of our next new year’s celebration, the Holometer should be the most sensitive machine in the world for testing whether reality can walk in a straight world-line!

It is going to be an exciting year at the Cosmic Frontier.