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College of Science and Mathematics

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Cal Poly Awarded NSF Grant to Search for Blazars, Dark Matter

VERITAS telescope array landscape

Professor Jodi Christiansen is on the hunt for blazars and dark matter, and thanks to almost $160,000 from the National Science Foundation, several Cal Poly physics majors will join the search. Christiansen and the students will work on improving gamma ray detection at the Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System (VERITAS) in southern Arizona.

Over the next three years, the research group will increase the sensitivity of the telescope array by improving the computer codes that sift the data it collects. “With these improved codes, we can discover new blazars and search more carefully for dark matter,” Christiansen said.

Blazars are one of the most luminous and energetic objects in the known universe. Scientists believe blazars form around supermassive black holes at the center of active galaxies. Learning more about these objects allows scientists to test the fundamental principles of physics.

Particles are constantly hitting the telescope array, making it difficult to tell what kind of particle it is — which indicates its origin — amid all the data. The Cal Poly computer algorithms will remove the background noise of particles that are not from blazars but are still detected by the telescopes.

These same algorithms can be used to mine the data for dark matter by filtering the signals coming to VERITAS from dwarf galaxies. According to scientific calculations, dark matter makes up about 25 percent of the universe, but scientists have not yet directly detected it.

An international team of physicists collaborates at the telescope array, a setting that provides the perfect opportunity for students to experience real-world research. “Working on VERITAS gives students a taste of what physics is like outside the classroom,” Christiansen said. “We are part of a team, working toward common scientific goals to push the boundaries of knowledge forward.”

Depending on the results of the students’ work and what the telescopes detect, Cal Poly students could be part of groundbreaking discoveries. “Exploring the data for hints of radiation from a blazar that has never been observed with this kind of telescope carries all the excitement of discovery,” Christiansen said.

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