Space Technology Research Grants (STRG) Program Profile: Benjamin Schmitt
Sky-High Science: Probing Dark Energy
Think of the Atacama Cosmology Telescope (ACT)-a six-meter telescope located at 17,000 feet atop a remote mountain in northern Chile-as the "home office" for Benjamin Schmitt, a Ph.D. candidate in physics and astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
"At the site, it's very much astrophysics meets Indiana Jones," Schmitt says, "very daunting when you first get here and are trying to get acclimated to the elevation and the climate, while also working with highly-delicate instrumentation."
As a NASA Space Technology Research Fellow, Schmitt is engaged in building and testing a novel, polarization-sensitive receiver to make possible high-resolution observations of the Cosmic Microwave Background, or CMB.
Benjamin's research is sponsored by the Space Technology Mission Directorate's Space Technology Research Grants (STRG) Program. The STRG Program funds research at U.S. universities with significant potential to contribute to NASA's strategic goals and missions.
Schmitt's research focuses on ACTPol, a receiver that operates at near absolute zero to boost its sensitivity. The super-chilly temperature is a necessary condition to probe the nature of the early universe.
To be sure, Schmitt tags his space technology work as enabling "cool science." Work on ACTPol is motivated strongly by questions of cosmology and astrophysics. Over the past decade one of the most important physical discoveries-and largest surprises-has been the discovery of the mysterious, so-called "dark energy."
This dark energy is responsible for the rapid acceleration of the expansion of the universe, originally inferred through observations of supernovae. Observations of the CMB provide a method of constraining the dark energy, Schmitt says, in addition to providing a wealth of information about other important cosmological parameters.
According to Schmitt, his focus of putting together highly sensitive instrumentation is in the development of individual next-generation space technologies, which taken together form a fully-functioning experiment in its own right. The ability to measure polarization in the CMB, using the Atacama Cosmology Telescope at 17,000 feet (5,182 meters) serves as a pathfinder for a future prospective NASA spacecraft-including a mission to study the CMB, commonly referred to as CMBPol.
According to Schmitt, the groundwork on the receiver improves the technical readiness level of that future satellite by integrating a number of technologies, such as cryogenics, high-sensitive detectors, and high-purity silicon optics with novel anti-reflective coatings.
What's the toughest technological challenge Schmitt is facing?
"Each one of them is difficult. But getting them to all work in tandem, in concert with one another, is the biggest challenge," Schmitt responds. With all the equipment attached to the Atacama Cosmology Telescope, how the receiver operates will be evaluated over the course of a few observing seasons.
Thanks to his grant, Schmitt has worked side-by-side with technologists at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., under the direct mentorship of astrophysicist, Edward Wollack at Goddard's Observational Cosmology Laboratory. He also is grateful for a partnership with experts at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Boulder, Colo.
"Working in a cutting-edge environment, such as a real-life government lab facility…it's an invaluable resource for someone in my position." Schmitt explains. With the first package of equipment now being evaluated at the Atacama Cosmology Telescope, the ultimate payoff for his custom-built endeavor is projected to be in early 2014, with full-deployment of ACTPol.
Schmitt believes the design, engineering, technology development and testing of ACTPol can lead to a better understanding of some of the most fundamental properties of the universe, with the ability to both positively influence scientific and academic programs across the globe, as well as promote economic growth across a myriad of technology fields here at home.