This week in science: anyone can help astronomers and more search for dark matter

This week in science is a review of the most interesting scientific news of the week.

An art conception of Planet 9. Credit: Backyard Worlds: Planet 9

This week two scientific collaborations exploring the outer space have released their collected data, necessary software, and tutorials to the public, so they can get all the possible help in hunting for new planets. This was mainly due to the huge amount of data collected, that requires more work to be analyzed than scientists can do by themselves.

The first collaboration is the Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, between NASA, UC Berkeley, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Arizona State University, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, and Zooniverse, a collaboration of scientists, software developers, and educators. They are sharing videos collected by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission between 2010 and 2011, that highlight any object that has gradually moved across the sky, currently the most comprehensive survey at mid-infrared wavelengths.

The data provided by the Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 project can be easily analyzed by anyone using only their eyes. That is because it is easy for us to recognize the important moving objects on the images while ignoring the artifacts. As stated by Aaron Meisner, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley:

"Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 has the potential to unlock once-in-a-century discoveries, and it's exciting to think they could be spotted first by a citizen scientist."

This data can be used to search for any unknown object in and beyond our own solar system, but the current main goal is to find the so-called Planet 9, or Planet X. Last year, astronomers at Caltech in Pasadena, California, have demonstrated that an as-yet-undetected planet is gravitationally interfering on the orbits of several distant solar system objects.

The second collaboration is headed by the Carnegie Institution for Science and includes the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). They have released the, at present, largest collection of observations made with a technique called radial velocity. This technique allows the detection of the small movements a star makes that, if made in a regular pattern, can indicate the presence of an exoplanet orbiting it, whose detection is the main goal of the project.

The data set was acquired over two decades by the High-Resolution Echelle Spectrometer (HIRES), at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii and is being provided with the open-source software necessary to process it along with an online tutorial so the public can learn how to help the hunting. And you can be sure there is work to be done: the enormous data set contain almost 61,000 measurements of more than 1,600 nearby stars. As stated by Jennifer Burt, a Torres Postdoctoral Fellow in MIT's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research:

"This is an amazing catalog, and we realized there just aren't enough of us on the team to be doing as much science as could come out of this dataset."

Among the data already available are over 100 highlighted stars that are likely to host exoplanets but require closer inspection. By further analyzing this data, for example, the public can greatly help the scientists accelerate their work. Also, HIRES will continue to record new data that the collaboration promises to make available in the future to expand the current data set.


A rendering of the LUX-ZEPLIN detector. Credit: Matt Hoff / Berkeley Lab

Scientists are not only on the hunt for exoplanets but also for more elusive components of our universe, like theoretical dark matter. First deduced through calculations by Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky in 1933, researchers around the world are now in a race to directly detect it.

A collaboration comprising 38 institutions from around the globe and about 220 participating scientists and engineers are now working on the LUX-ZEPLIN (LZ) experiment. The construction of the experiment is expected to be finished by April 2020 at the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) in Lead, South Dakota, and will try to detect WIMPs (weakly interacting massive particles), theoretical candidates for dark matter particles.

This is not the first time a WIMP detector was built, though. The Large Underground Xenon (LUX) experiment was running at the same place at SURF where LZ, which is at least 50 times more sensitive, is going to be built. Also, Italy plans to upgrade its XENON1T experiment and China wants to advance the work on its PandaX-II experiment, both with the same goal and a similar schedule as the LZ experiment. As stated by Carter Hall, the spokesperson for the LZ collaboration and an associate professor of physics at the University of Maryland:

"The science is highly compelling, so it's being pursued by physicists all over the world. It's a friendly and healthy competition, with a major discovery possibly at stake."

Another development in the search for dark matter came from the Haloscope At Yale Sensitive To Axion Cold Dark Matter (HAYSTAC) project. Instead of searching for WIMPs, this project wants to detect axions, which are another theoretical candidates for dark matter particles.

This time, though, the team led by Yale physicist Steve Lamoreaux has already published their first results in the renowned scientific journal Physical Review Letters. According to Lamoreaux:

"Our major breakthrough was making the detector colder and quieter than ever before, by adapting amplifiers developed for quantum computing research whose noise performance approaches the fundamental limits imposed by the laws of quantum mechanics. With the first data from our detector, we have set limits on the interactions of dark matter axions and opened a new portion of the allowed axion mass range to experimental investigation."

The team has developed a new instrument built at Yale's Wright Lab for this project. By using it, the scientists could determine the sensitivity an instrument must have to detect axions up to 10 times heavier than those currently being targeted.

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