Physicists study dark matter in outer space

Emily Williams

Dark matter is more than just a mythical fuel source in the popular, animated comedy “Futurama.” It is potentially a substantial part of the universe.

Three University of Alabama physicists are taking part in an international experiment to test for the existence of dark matter in an attempt to understand what makes up our universe.

“Dark matter is believed to be a very important component of the universe,” said Ion Stancu, associate professor of physics. “We have measurements which indicate that about a quarter of the universe is made out of this mysterious form of matter. It’s called dark matter simply because we cannot see it.”

Stancu, along with fellow professors Andreas Piepke and Jerry Busenitz, has begun working with researchers from 28 institutions including Stanford, Yale, UC–Davis and Oxford to design a device that will detect dark matter, called “the LZ,” which stands for Lux Zeplin.

In order to shield the device from radioactivity, cosmic rays and other components that may interfere with detection, the experiment will take place underground, in a former gold mine in South Dakota. Busenitz said construction on the detector will take around three to four years, then they will operate the experiment and collect data for another three to four years.

Piepke said both undergraduates and post-doctoral participants will assist in data analysis and research on campus.

Because they are measuring things that have never been measured before, new technologies will have to be developed, which may have other applications in the future, Busenitz said. Because they are unsure where exactly dark matter exists and how it 
interacts with the world as we 
currently know it, Stancu said the experiment will have to test in two dimensions. He said the theory for the existence of dark matter comes from the discrepancy between how fast galaxies are rotating and how fast they should be rotating.

“We certainly hope to detect the dark matter, however there is no guarantee,” he said. “If we’re lucky, if the gods are smiling on us, then we might detect dark matter. If not, it’s the next 
generation’s experiments that will be tasked to do that. The greatest uncertainty is not looking; that is a guarantee that you will never find anything.”