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STFC scientists design instrument to understand dark matter

 Scientists will design quantum technology to accelerate searches for dark matter and gravitational waves.

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Scientists at the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) in Oxfordshire will provide the design for a new instrument. This will open our understanding of dark matter and allow us to observe gravitational waves in an entirely new frequency range.

The interdisciplinary team at RAL brings together expertise from particle and cold atom physicists, engineers and space technologists to design a 10-metre atom interferometer. This will be the first large-scale atom interferometer in the UK.

A £7 million funding injection for the Atom Interferometry Observatory and Network (AION) will help to develop a partnership with the Fermi National Laboratory in the United States. This will create a network between two instruments.

The network is led by researchers from Imperial College London.

Fundamental physics probes

Optical interferometers have been used as sensitive probes of fundamental physics since the 1880s, detecting movement over very small distances. They are now used to detect gravitational waves from distant objects using giant optical interferometers in the US and Italy.

Atom interferometers will use the wave-like behaviour of matter particles to detect even smaller disturbances, including the ‘stretching’ of space-time itself, with recent advances in the preparation of ultra-cold atoms.

The AION network aims to scale up the interferometer to detect both gravitational waves and subtle effects on the movements of atoms due to the presence of dark matter in the universe.

Cutting edge expertise

The RAL team is responsible for the design of the detector assembly for the new atomic interferometer, including the 10 metre-long vacuum tube, thermal shield and magnetic field.

The team is uniquely placed to meet this challenge with its experience in the design of other sensitive detectors. The team will collaborate with colleagues from University of Oxford on the deployment and installation of the detector.

STFC’s Dark Matter Group Leader Dr Pawel Majewski recently said:

Rutherford Appleton Laboratory is an ideal place to work on the AION project as it requires expertise in designing and building an ultra-sensitive apparatus at large scale.

At RAL this can be achieved thanks to bringing together scientists and engineers from across the lab working on the table-top and hyper-large experiments around the world.

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