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Particle astrophysics research by College faculty member supported by Keck Foundation Grant

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

LAWRENCE — A grant provided by the W.M. Keck Foundation of Los Angeles will help support a University of Kansas research group that is part of a multiuniversity team pioneering tools for detecting and analyzing cosmic rays – particles that may unlock the secrets of our universe.

Dave Besson, a professor of physics and astronomy at KU, leads the group and will use Keck funds to build the main receiver antennas for a new bistatic radar observatory in a remote desert near Delta, Utah. The area is currently home to the Telescope Array RADAR Project (TARA), an integrated, 300-square-mile assemblage of telescopes and detectors established in 2007 to measure naturally occurring but highly energetic radiation reaching Earth from within and beyond our own galaxy. TARA is the largest cosmic ray detector in the Northern Hemisphere.

“Bistatic means there’s a fixed transmitter and a fixed receiver,” said Besson. “In this case they’re about 50 miles apart, in a desert region with little radio interference. The goal is to detect the radar echoes of cosmic rays as they enter the atmosphere between the two points. The technique works in principle, but we hope this project will confirm that and provide a new tool that’s more sensitive than anything we have today.”

The $1 million Keck grant was awarded to John Belz of the University of Utah, which leads the TARA program in collaboration with four U.S. research institutions. Approximately $200,000 of the grant will support the KU group, which includes Besson, graduate research assistant Samridha Kunwar from the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Professor Chris Allen from the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Ken Ratzlaff, director of KU’s Instrumentation Design Laboratory. The Keck award builds upon earlier National Science Foundation funding for the work at TARA.

“The W.M. Keck Foundation’s support of Dr. Besson and his colleagues demonstrates how important private funding can be to advancing basic research and creating new opportunities for our faculty,” said Becca Peterson, director of research collaborations in the Office of Research and Graduate Studies. “One of KU’s strategies for driving discovery and innovation is to assist faculty teams in preparing proposals that match up with the funding priorities of private foundations that seek to champion their research endeavors.” Peterson advises KU faculty who wish to pursue foundation funding in support of their research and hopes many others will follow Besson’s lead by engaging foundations in their work.

"Our hope is that this technique can provide a cost-effective alternative to the large-scale efforts (both logistically and financially) currently required to probe the most cataclysmic and most explosive processes in the observable universe,” said Besson. “Within one to two years, we should have a good sense of whether the apparent promise of cosmic ray radar imaging will, indeed, be fulfilled."