KU researchers to explore ways to identify dark matter, dark energy in the universe

photo by: NASA

This NASA and European Space Agency image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows a spiral galaxy known as PGC 54493. (European Space Agency ESA/Hubble & NASA, Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt)

A group of University of Kansas researchers is aiming to discover ways to understand dark matter and dark energy in outer space.

That research may help scientists further understand the fundamental structure of the universe, said Ian Lewis, a KU assistant professor for the department of physics and astronomy.

The research group — which includes Lewis, fellow KU particle theorist K.C. Kong and KU astrophysicists and cosmologists Mikhail Medvedev and Sergei Shandarin — recently received a three-year $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and another $150,000 grant from the state of Kansas to perform the research.

Lewis said scientists know that most of the universe — about 95 percent — is made up of dark matter and dark energy.

Dark matter is matter that scientists know exists because it exhibits a gravitational pull but has not been identified yet because it does not emit or absorb light, according to NASA. Similarly, dark energy is a force that is making the universe’s expansion accelerate but has yet to be identified.

During the study, the research group will use computer simulations to theorize new ways to identify and find dark matter and dark energy, Lewis said.

“What we do is look at the models and write down theoretically what they are and then run these simulations that show, yes, you could actually go look for this (dark matter),” he said.

The group would then help lead other scientists — such as those who operate the Large Hadron Collider in Europe or the Fermilab in the U.S. — to run the experiments.

“Hopefully we can convince them to then go look in their data and actually find it,” Lewis said. “The whole goal is to actually find it.”

One theory the group plans to explore is using a neutrino detector to also detect dark matter, Lewis said. A neutrino is a known microscopic matter that does not interact with normal matter, such as human beings.

“They never interact with you. They just go right through you, and you never know they are there,” Lewis said of neutrinos. “Dark matter rarely interacts with anything as well, so if the dark matter is high enough energy, you may be able to see it inside a neutrino detector.”

Lewis said he’s excited about the study because it could lead to learning more about how the universe is structured.

“Dark matter and dark energy is something you know but you don’t understand,” Lewis said. “You know you need to understand it to actually understand how the universe is acting and to understand the fundamental nature of the universe and the structure of the universe. So we get excited because that’s really what we want to do.”

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