National Science Foundation awards Northeastern Illinois University grant for dark matter research project

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Northeastern Illinois University a three-year, $169,858 grant to develop and maintain software that is needed to help successfully run an experiment that will search for dark matter. The grant is a sub-award of a larger $770,500 grant split between Indiana University South Bend, Penn State and Northeastern to help fund the development of PICO-500.

PICO-500 is the international PICO Collaboration team’s next-generation project that last year announced that the PICO-60 dark matter bubble chamber experiment had produced a new dark matter limit.

At the time, the PICO-60 experiment was the world’s largest bubble chamber in operation. It was filled with 52 kilograms of octafluoropropane and was taking data in the ladder lab area of SNOLAB, Canada's leading edge astroparticle physics research facility located 6,800 feet underground in the Vale Creighton Mine. PICO-500 will be about 10 times larger than PICO-60.

Northeastern’s role has been led by Assistant Professor of Physics Orin Harris, who was previously a PICO post-doc at Indiana University South Bend, where he played a central role in PICO analysis.

Harris is currently leading an effort to build software to monitor raw and reconstructed data taken by PICO bubble chambers. With the project in need of more modern software, Harris in 2016 wrote a new event display that is much faster and able to accommodate a larger feature set. With the help of a Northeastern student, Harris made progress toward replacing nearly all of the functionality of the previous event display software in the summer of 2017.

NSF’s grant will pay for two undergraduate students to assist Harris with his efforts during the summers of 2019 through 2021. They will attend PICO collaboration meetings and international conferences. Harris also will build a small bubble chamber to test methods for improving bubble chamber technology.

"This grant presents a great opportunity for Northeastern students to contribute to an international effort to shed light on one of biggest questions in physics: What exactly is it that accounts for most of the matter in the universe?” Harris said.

Harris anticipates recruiting students for the first summer positions next semester.

Orrin Harris

Orin Harris

Top photo courtesy of SNOLAB

Image: 
Dark matter bubble chamber
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