Fermilab physicist transforms dark energy lens into dark matter detector
|Presidential Early Career Award recipient Juan Estrada
A Fermilab physicist recently transformed technology used to search for signs of dark energy into the best detector in the world for spotting low-mass dark matter particles.
The White House honored that physicist, Juan Estrada, on Friday with the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. Thirteen U.S. Department of Energy researchers received the award this year.
Estrada spends most of his time building and testing imaging sensors for the Dark Energy Camera. But he has set himself apart by using the same technology in a side project to search for dark matter.
"Juan is relatively new to the dark matter field," said Dan Bauer, deputy head of Fermilab's Center for Particle Astrophysics. "You'd think it'd be enough of a challenge to work on DECam. But he somehow had spare time to think of new ideas."
Brenna Flaugher, Estrada's supervisor, joked, "I don't think he sleeps."
Estrada credited the technicians and engineers from the dark energy search who gave their spare time and expertise to his dark matter search project, called DAMIC for Dark Matter in CCDs.
"Fermilab was in a good position to take advantage of this opportunity because of all the work we had already done for DECam," he said.
The president gives the Early Career Award each year to about 100 young researchers "whose early accomplishments show the greatest promise for strengthening America's leadership in science and technology and contributing to the awarding agencies' missions." With the grant money from the award, Estrada will be able to build a larger, more advanced prototype of his dark matter detector.
Estrada started at Fermilab as a student from the University of Rochester working on the DZero experiment. As a 32-year-old postdoc, he earned a Wilson Fellowship, which gave him up to five years to study whatever he wanted at the laboratory.
He had worked on cosmology as an undergraduate in Argentina, so he chose to work on the Dark Energy Survey, much to the surprise of his colleagues.
"Nobody on DZero knew that Juan was a closet astrophysicist," said Tom Diehl, Estrada's former DZero colleague who now builds CCDs for the Dark Energy Survey as well.
Estrada builds charge-coupled devices, the same type of imaging sensors found in digital cameras, for the 570-megapixel Dark Energy Camera. These CCDs are specifically designed to capture the light that reaches Earth from extremely distant galaxies and supernovae. The Dark Energy Survey will use data from the camera to search of signs of dark energy, which scientists theorize affects the evolving shape of the universe.
|Left to right: Technician Kevin Kuk, physicist Juan Estrada, engineer Herman Cease and physicist Ben Kilminster stand in the NuMI hall next to the DAMIC detector.