LSU researchers’ telescope to arrive at space station Monday; will study high energy particles, ‘dark matter’ _lowres

Photo provided by LSU Dept. of Physics & Astronomy -- International Space Station in orbit.

With an anxious eye to the sky early Wednesday morning, LSU researchers joined about 50 members of an international team as they watched the culmination of 10 years of work launch into orbit on a Japanese cargo vessel.

The CALorimetric Electron Telescope went from launch at the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan to orbit in about 15 minutes as it began its five-day trip to rendezvous with the International Space Station on Monday.

The telescope will be attached to the space station and for at least the next five years will be looking for high-energy particles that can tell scientists more about the universe.

For the past decade, a team of 50 international researchers have been working to develop CALET. The team was led by Japanese researchers joined by colleagues in Italy and the United States, including researchers from LSU.

High-energy particles such as electrons or protons are being studied worldwide, most famously at the European Organization for Nuclear Research facility, known as CERN, at the France-Switzerland border. Astrophysicists are looking at how these particles react at higher and higher energy levels.

“That’s where we’re finding the action is,” said John Wefel, professor emeritus at LSU in the Department of Physics & Astronomy.

As the U.S. co-principal investigator for the project, Wefel said going into space allows researchers to look for particles with higher energy than anything CERN can produce.

“Mother Nature is doing something CERN can’t even do yet,” Wefel said. “They’re all trying to tell us something, and we’re trying to figure out what they’re telling us.”

Once the equipment has docked, the robotic arm will mount the telescope outside the space station, where it will remain while air bubbles still in the equipment slowly leach out before it can be powered up. Information from the telescope should start coming back to Earth in about three months.

That information could help answer questions like what is the source of cosmic rays, and help determine how much radiation humans could face in space, according to NASA.

The work also could help researchers better understand “dark matter,” a mysterious substance that may make up about 27 percent of the universe, according to NASA.

“Dark matter, we know it has to be around, but we’ve never been able to see it directly,” said Nick Cannady, a doctoral graduate student working on the project.

Because it apparently neither absorbs nor emits light, dark matter is impossible to observe with telescopes.

Researchers know it exists primarily because of how other things that we can see react to its existence.

“Cosmic rays give a secondary look at dark matter,” Cannady said.

Cannady’s thesis will be looking at gamma rays, or high-energy light, within the cosmic rays.

His work on the project is to help develop software that will allow LSU to serve as the U.S. base for sending out data from the telescope to U.S. partners.

Also joining in developing the telescope were researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and the University of Denver.

Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.