Carnegie Mellon Press Release: December 11, 2003
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Press Release

Lauren Ward

For immediate release:
December 11, 2003

Carnegie Mellon University Astrophysicist Receives NASA Funding For Dark Universe Observatory

PITTSBURGH—An international project led by Carnegie Mellon astrophysicist Richard Griffiths has been selected as a candidate mission for NASA's Small Explorer (SMEX) program and awarded $450,000 by NASA for further development. Griffiths' project, the Dark Universe Observatory (DUO), will compete against four other projects for full development and eventual launch into space by the end of the decade.

The goal of DUO is to measure the amount of dark energy in the universe. This energy is called "dark" because its origin is unknown and it counteracts gravity, the natural force in the universe that attracts matter together. Griffiths expects that DUO will provide experimental evidence to form a theory about how dark energy works.

"We have no idea what it is or how it behaves, except that it is causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate rather than to slow down. It operates in the opposite way to gravity," explained Griffiths.

Research on the nature of dark energy has intensified over the past five years. In 1998 two independent experiments showed that dark energy makes up 73 percent of the universe. Ordinary matter, as we know it, only accounts for 4 percent of the known universe.

In the past two years, telescopes, including one at the South Pole designed by Carnegie Mellon astrophysicist Jeff Peterson, have helped to confirm dark energy's role in the expanding cosmos. From these experiments, Griffith's team is setting mathematical boundaries that should constrain how dark energy operates, also called its "equation of state." This equation will guide their interpretation of DUO data they collect.

The DUO will be an Earth-orbiting satellite consisting of seven telescopes that take a wide survey of the sky using x-rays. MPE in Germany will build the satellite's telescopes and detector, and Ball Aerospace, based in Boulder, Colo., will build its housing. Other collaborating partners include Sonoma State University, the Harvard College Observatory and the Goddard Space Flight Center.

The DUO will perform an initial survey based on previously completed optical surveys conducted by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), in which Carnegie Mellon already plays an active role. By looking at x-rays coming from clusters of galaxies, DUO will actually be peering back in time to what the universe looked like billions of years ago. DUO also will capture x-rays emitted from deep within specific regions selected from the SDSS.

"If DUO is successful, then we will probably need larger missions of the same kind to probe the universe further back in time nearer to the Big Bang," said Griffiths.

The full cost of DUO will be $153 million, according to Griffiths, who noted that $21 million will be paid for by Germany's Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics. The remaining $132 million, which Griffiths will receive from NASA if DUO is selected as a mission, will go mainly toward launch costs and spacecraft construction.

NASA's SMEX program is designed to allow rapid-development, science-focused satellite missions on small budgets to receive the full support of NASA launch and communication facilities.

"These projects are radically different," said Griffiths. SMEX spacecraft normally weigh much less than normal spacecraft and require a fraction of the money to develop, build and launch. Because of the nature of the SMEX program, proposals are solicited every two years, and selection is highly competitive. Out of 36 submitted proposals, NASA chose five (including DUO) to conduct five-month long feasibility studies. Out of these, two will be chosen to be launched into space in 2007 and 2008.

The feasibility study will provide considerable detail on the engineering steps needed to ensure that the mission can achieve its scientific goals. The study will be submitted in June, and Griffiths expects to know whether the project is funded by November of 2004.


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