Research Groups

Astronomy

The current acceleration of the universe poses a serious challenge to our understanding of fundamental physics: how vacuum energy gravitates, if vacuum energy would change over time, how gravity works on cosmological scales, etc. In order to make a progress in these areas, one must have new observations. TAMU’s major role in DES, the GMT and LSST will provide equally important equally important instruments and observations to further understand this phenomenon. The ongoing observational program at TAMU will yield a greatly improved measurement of the age of the Universe, which is critical to better constrain the properties of dark energy. Simultaneously, an appropriate interpretation of all these observations will require a major theoretical investigation on the nature of dark energy.

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High Energy Experiment (HEE)

The Mitchell Institute experimentalists’ endeavor to understand the existence of the Higgs boson at the collider will provide the most crucial building block of the particle physics models. Also, the Mitchell Institute will exploit active observational programs in direct detection of DM from scattering by terrestrial nuclear targets underground (LUX, CDMS) and an indirect detection of DM by detecting antiparticles as well as gamma-rays arising from DM annihilation using space-borne observatories (AMS, Fermi).

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High Energy Theory (HET)

The results from the Large Hadron Collider, different direct and indirect dark matter detection experiments and upcoming results from the Planck satellite and other astrophysical experiments would provide relevant data to explain the origin of dark matter, inflation etc. in the context of particle physics models. Fundamental principles of string theory will help explore these realistic particle physics models. The next decade will be a fertile period for this activity owing to the availability of experimental results from different particle physics and cosmological observations.

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Ovservable Astronomy

Think back when you were a kid—going outside on a dark moonless night—the Milky Way stretching across a boundless sky, the heavens dripping with twinkling stars. A telescope offers a close up view of planets, galaxies, nebulae and open clusters, all dancing on a canvas of unimaginably cold deep space tempered by lights millions and billions of years old. The Mitchell Institute understands the joy and value of astronomy, and how this age-old science magnifies the beauty and extreme of space, igniting curiosity not just among studied scientists but children of all ages. Mitchell researchers place high value on the observation and study of celestial objects, and the physics, chemistry, mathematics, and evolution of such objects. The Mitchell Institute understands the importance of investing in innovative equipment, facilities, and faculty in order to properly study and observe the wonder of space and time—ingredients that tell us of our past and inform our future—confronting us with some of the biggest and most challenging notions about the fabric of the Universe.

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Observational Cosmology

Modern scientific cosmology began with Einstein’s general theory of relativity, allowing scientists to understand the origin of space and time. Einstein’s theory forms the basis of the modern Big Bang model. The Mitchell Institute’s observational cosmology research is driven by the desire to complete pieces of this compelling framework, like archaeologists attempting to reconstruct ancient civilizations centered on magnificent cities. Mitchell observational scientists collectively focus on inflation, supernovae, stellar populations, astronomical instrumentation, dark energy, dark matter, and the large-scale structure of the Universe. Institute scientists use observational data on the distant Universe obtained by ground-based and space-based observatories, as well as analysis of large surveys of the local Universe. The Institute is also actively involved in a number of international collaborative research efforts, including the Giant Magellan Telescope, the Hobby Eberly Telescope, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, the Antarctic Telescope, and the Dark Energy Survey.

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Extragalactic Astrophysics

Imagine that less than 100 years ago scientists were convinced that the Milky Way Galaxy represented the entire Universe. Extragalactic astrophysicists now estimate that there are some 100 billion galaxies in the observable Universe—about the same number as the neurons in a human brain. Mitchell scientists Kim-Vy Tran and Casey Papovich are engaged in a variety of active research projects, including the study of galaxy clusters—important building blocks with the power to better understand conditions in the Universe’s earliest moments that can unlock the mysteries of galaxy evolution. Institute astronomers were involved in a breakthrough discovery of the most distant galaxy cluster identified to date, named CIG J0218.3-0510. Such projects use all major observing facilities on the ground and in space, including the Hubble Space Telescope and a new camera, dubbed FourStar, installed on the Magellan 6.5-meter telescope in Chile. Institute scientists will have priority access to the new Giant Magellan Telescope, scheduled to begin operating in 2018.

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Astronomical Instrumentation

Astronomers have long gazed upon the sky, curiously watching the to and fro of the sun, moon, and constellations. And, for those observations, the eye, however evolved, has been insufficient. Developments in technology drive breakthroughs in understanding the Universe, with precision astronomical instrumentation allowing scientists to boldly go where no man has gone before. These instruments will open windows to observations and discoveries ranging from exoplanets and Earth-like planets to dark matter and dark energy. The Mitchell Institute—led by scientists Darren DePoy, Lifan Wang, Nicholas Suntzeff, and Lucas Macri—is a worldwide leader in the conception, design, and build out of astronomical instrumentation. The Institute is actively engaged in such projects as the Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile, the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment at the University of Texas at Austin’s McDonald Observatory in west Texas, the Visible Integral-field Replicable Unit Spectrograph, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, and the Antarctic Telescope.

Learn more about the Munnerlyn Astronomical Instrumentation Lab

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Galaxy Evolution

The Universe is complex and improbable yet may be explained by what some might call a cosmic version of biological evolution. The study of how galaxies form and evolve as a function of environment identifies the processes that spawned a heterogeneous Universe from a homogeneous beginning, and helped create the building blocks of life. Recent discoveries by an international team of astronomers, led by Institute scientists Kim-Vy Tran and Casey Papovich, show a significant fraction of ancient galaxies still actively forming stars—producing hundreds to thousands of new stars every year. Such observations are essential for separating the nature versus nurture aspect of galaxy evolution. To detect these quantum fluctuations that sowed galaxies in the infant cosmos, the Institute uses technology-advanced imaging from space-based facilities such as the Spitzer Space Telescope and Hubble Space Telescope Hershel Space Telescope, and observations from ground-based facilities such as the Chilean-based Magellan Telescope and the Very Large Telescope.

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Resolved Stellar Populations

Stars are the building blocks of galaxies. Research on resolved stellar populations focuses on the study of the different generations of stars—characterized by a common age and chemical composition—that make up a galaxy. These observations represent the principal way to determine the life history of galaxies and thus help clarify the age of the Universe. Using the Universe as its laboratory, Mitchell Institute astronomers are dedicated to identifying the properties and formation histories of individual stars in both nearby and faraway galaxies—research that remains one of the most important areas in astrophysics. The impact of the new Giant Magellan Telescope will be revolutionary, providing deep observations of galaxies at high resolution and unprecedented sensitivity over a wavelength range from near ultraviolet to near infrared. This will yield data about the composition, condition, and movement of stars that are incredibly remote and deep in time.

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Experimental Physics

Experimental physics was established more than 400 years ago by the likes of Galileo Galilei and Sir Isaac Newton. Mitchell Institute experimental physicists focus on the disciplines of physics concerned with data-acquisition, data-acquisition methods, and the detailed conceptualization and realization of laboratory experiments—providing data about the Universe for better understanding. The active collaboration between experimentalists and theorists at the Institute is crucial to solving many mysteries of the Universe, including better understanding the dark matter puzzle and the Higgs boson enigma. Institute experimentalists exploit active programs of studying the Higgs boson and dark matter (DM) particles at proton-proton collisions at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and indirect detection for dark matter utilizing underground colliders such as the Large Underground Xenon and the Super Cryogenic Dark Matter Search experiments. They also work with the space-born observations from the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to indirectly search for the existence of dark matter particle.

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Higgs Studies

Mitchell Institute theorists and experimentalist physicists—members of the Compact Muon Solenoid and Collider Detector at Fermilab teams—collaborated on the historic discovery of a Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider in 2012. Scientists had long theorized that without the Higgs—a proposed elementary particle in the Standard Model—there would be no mass. Scientists Ricardo Eusebi, Teruki Kamon, Alexei Safonov, and Dave Toback led a team of 30 professors, researchers, engineers, and graduate and undergraduate students—helping to make an observation that will serve as a door to the unknown. Institute team members made strong contributions to the installation and operation of the CMS Muon detectors, Hadron Collider, trigger, and GRID computing and data analysis techniques—all which led directly to the observation of the Higgs. Institute scientists will continue to take a strong position in Higgs searches—research that will play an even greater role as researchers set forth on the path of understanding the nature of the newly observed particle.

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Dark Matter Searches in Direct and Indirect Detection Experiments

There’s no greater mystery than that of dark matter, the substance that is believed to hold the cosmos together but to date has never been directly observed. The Mitchell Institute engages active collaborations between experimentalists and theorists—generating global perspectives crucial to solving the dark matter puzzle. The interaction of the Dark Matter particle with matter is believed to leave behind a small amount of energy capable of being tracked by advanced detector technology. In 2013, Institute scientist Rupak Mahapatra—part of the Super Cryogenic Dark Matter Search experiment—reported a dark matter particle-like signal indicating a 99.8% chance or a hint of a dark matter particle. The experiment used a sophisticated detector technology and advanced analysis techniques to enable cryogenically cooled germanium and silicon targets to search for the rare recoil of dark matter particles. MI scientists Rupak Mahapatra and Dave Toback are involved in this experiment. Institute scientists Robert Webb and James White are involved with the Large Underground Xenon experiment, which uses liquid Xenon to search for the presence of the dark matter particle around us.

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Dark Matter Searches at Collider

The search for dark matter is a major focus at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) experiment. The goal is to produce the elusive dark matter particle from proton-proton collisions. Mitchell Institute experimentalists Ricardo Eusebi, Teruki Kamon, and Alexei Safonov are studying the physics of fundamental particle interactions at the LHC and are trying to detect the presence of the dark matter particle in the form of “missing energy.” Detecting “missing” energy at the Collider would constitute a signal of dark matter particle thus a major step toward cracking the mystery of dark matter. Converging on specific dark matter models at the LHC may not be, however, so simple. While Mitchell Institute scientists expect that new particles related to the dark matter particle will be produced in proton-proton collisions at the LHC, the final stages of these processes are very complex. Mitchell Institute scientists are investigating the data collected at the LHC to search for this fundamental particle that makes up 23% of the Universe.

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Advanced Particle Detector Research & Development

Just as detectives can identify a suspect from tracks at a crime scene, physicists can identify subatomic particles from the traces left behind in particle detectors. The quest for fundamental physics presents myriad technical obstacles and thus considerable efforts of both experimental and theoretical physicists are required. Higher-energy accelerators are needed to investigate new phenomena, and machines of higher luminosity can open opportunities for the observation of rare and unexpected processes. Mitchell Institute scientists are engaged in pushing technological boundaries by helping to develop world-class accelerator and detector devices. Institute scientists also push the bounds of discovery by performing pioneering research with global partners. Institute scientist Peter McIntyre is one of the pioneers of Hadron Colliders. Institute experimentalists Ricardo Eusebi, Teruki Kamon, and Alexei Safonov are developing CMS muon and tracking systems for extremely high luminosity operation of the LHC. Recently, scientists with the international collaboration Super Cryogenic Dark Matter Search experiment observed a concrete hint of a dark matter particle—whose search was powered by detectors being fabricated at Texas A&M. The collaboration included Mitchell Institute high-energy physicist Rupak Mahapatra. The Institute is developing larger, more advanced detectors needed for the project’s current phases, from SuperCDMS to the even more sophisticated Germanium Observatory for Dark Matter experiments.

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Theoretical Physics

Einstein’s hair or Newton’s apple may conjure up images of stereotypical theoretical physicists attempting to figure out the complex questions and problems of the Universe, from the cosmological to the elementary particle scale. The Mitchell Institute is at the forefront of theoretical physics, the science that adheres to mathematical models and abstractions to explain natural phenomena while giving little weight to observations and experiments. Institute scientists focus on myriad fundamental unresolved questions in particle physics, including string theory, gravity, grand unification of fundamental forces, models and phenomenology, interconnection between particle physics and cosmology, inflation, origin of dark matter, and dark energy. The theory group publishes some 30 highly cited papers annually, and organizes a number of major workshop and conferences each year.

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String Theory

String theory has been described as one of the most ambitious and exciting theories ever proposed—the long-sought “theory of everything,” which eluded even Einstein. Many theoretical physicists, including Stephen Hawking, propose that the self-contained mathematical model is, indeed, the framework for all fundamental forces and forms of matter. In addition to the types of particles postulated by the Standard Model, string theory incorporates gravity. Mitchell Institute researchers Katrin Becker, Melanie Becker, Christopher Pope, and Ergin Sezgin focus on understanding gravity and gauge theories at the most fundamental level. String theory (and more generally M-theory and F-theory) is widely considered to be the only viable candidate to unify gravity with quantum theory. String theory could be used to explore the infinitely tiny starting point of our Universe’s evolution; to describe black holes and their evolution in the Hawking process; and to attempt to understand the origin of dark energy and the rapid expansion of the early Universe.

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Supergravity

It has been said that the falling of an apple from a tree inspired Newton to develop his theory of gravity. Einstein was inspired to extend this into his general theory of relativity by imagining what happens to an experimenter inside an elevator in free fall. But explaining quantum gravity—how gravity works at the smallest scale—remains an unsolved problem in physics. Mitchell Institute researchers Christopher Pope and Ergin Sezgin believe that supergravity, which is contained within string theory, has been one of the most significant developments in theoretical physics in the last few decades. Supergravity brings together Einstein’s theory of general relativity with the concept of supersymmetry, which relates every known particle with some other particle—its superpartner.

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Inflation

Data strongly suggests that a brief burst of hyperaccelerated expansion occurred during the first instants after the Big Bang. Inflation infuses ideas from quantum physics and particle physics to explore the early moments of the Universe, answering classic conundrums of the Big Bang model such as the contradictory observation that the Universe appears flat, homogeneous, and isotropic when one would expect a highly curved, heterogeneous construct. Inflation also provides a successful mechanism for generating fluctuations that lead to the formation of structures like the Milky Way Galaxy. Mitchell Institute theorists Bhaskar Dutta and Dimitri Nanopoulous work on different models of inflation that make dissimilar, testable predictions for the properties of these fluctuations—intensive efforts focused on finding a realistic understanding of inflation in particle physics and string theory in order to better comprehend the Universe from its inception to present stage.

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Models

It’s common to use idealized models in physics to simplify things. The results from the Large Hadron Collider, different direct and indirect dark matter detection experiments, and results from the Planck satellite and other astrophysical experiments will hopefully provide relevant data to explain such things as the origin of dark matter, abundance of baryons, dark energy and inflation in the context of particle physics models. New models will be constructed to understand the past, present and future of the Universe. Fundamental principles of string theory will help explore these realistic particle physics models. The next decade will be a fertile period for this activity owing to the availability of experimental results from different particle physics and cosmological observations. Mitchell Institute theorists Richard Arnwoitt, Bhaskar Dutta, and Dimitri Nanopoulos are actively involved in developing realistic particle physics models.

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Collider Phenomenology

Collider Phenomenology establishes a bridge between theoretical particle physics and experimental high-energy particle physics. This active and unconventional collaboration at the Mitchell Institute affords a crucial link to solving the mysteries of dark matter. A vital synergy between particle physics and cosmology arises from the findings that an estimated 23% of the mass-energy of the Universe is known to be dark matter. Institute scientists Richard Arnowitt, Bhaskar Dutta, and Dimitri Nanopoulos leverage an active experimental program at Texas A&M involving particle colliders and accelerators and international collaborations such as the Compact Muon Solenoid experiment, a large particle physics detector built on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and direct dark matter detection experiments, e.g., CDMS, LUX. Many of the models tested at the Large Hadron Collider that attempt to explain the breakdown of the Standard Model (such as supersymmetry) also predict the existence of dark matter.

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A collected image from the Hubble Space Telescope
  • Astronomy
  • High Energy Experiment
  • High Energy Theory

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  • Astronomical Instrumentation
  • Cosmology
  • Galaxy Evolution
  • Resolved Stellar Populations
  • Stellar Astrophysics

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  • Advanced Particle Detector Research
  • Dark Matter Experiments
  • Dark Matter Searches at Collider
  • Experimental Physics
  • Higgs Studies

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  • Collider Phenomenology
  • Inflation
  • Models
  • String Theory
  • Supergravity
  • Theoretical Physics