CIBER-2 experiment successfully completes first flight

Chi Nguyen ’21 Ph.D. (astrophysical sciences and technology) makes final adjustments to the rocket payload prior to CIBER-2’s launch.
Credit: NSROC III/NASA

By sending a Black Brant IX rocket on a 15-minute flight to space and back, researchers from Rochester Institute of Technology, Caltech, Kwansei Gakuin University, and Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute glimpsed traces of light from the earliest stages of the universe. The Cosmic Infrared Background Experiment-2 (CIBER-2) completed a successful first launch on June 7 at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, the first of four planned over the next several years.

Led by principal investigator Michael Zemcov, an assistant professor in RIT’s School of Physics and Astronomy and Center for Detectors, the experiment aims to better understand extragalactic background light, which traces the history of galaxies back to the formation of the first stars in the universe. Zemcov said data collected by the study could help resolve discrepancies about how many stars exist in the universe.

“Scientists do this measurement different ways and we’re having a really hard time to make the results of those different ways agree,” said Zemcov. “So there’s a mystery going on. Why aren’t all these measurements agreeing? I think that CIBER-2 will start to unravel some of that.”

The experiment leverages an observational technique called intensity mapping used to study the structure of the universe. The rocket spends 6-7 minutes in space each flight, taking measurements in six infrared wavelengths to help the researchers analyze the diffuse infrared glow in our skies.Recent alumna Chi Nguyen ’21 Ph.D. (astrophysical sciences and technology), whose thesis and much of her graduate career were focused on the project, called the launch exhilarating.

“It feels amazing, a lot of weight off my shoulders,” said Nguyen. “It’s really exciting right now because we’re pulling the data and I can actually see star images. I think this is a great experiment and we’re doing a lot of interesting work in astronomy. It may take a while to get the science out of it but I think it has been a very successful first launch.”

Nguyen will next head to Caltech for a position as a postdoctoral researcher under Professor Jamie Bock, co-principal investigator of CIBER-2 and Zemcov’s former mentor.

Four RIT researchers spent the last several months in New Mexico helping to prepare the rocket for launch—Zemcov, Nguyen, astrophysical sciences and technology master’s student Michael Ortiz, and Serena Tramm, an astrophysical sciences and technology Ph.D. student. The experiment was nearly ready for launch in February 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic brought the project to a halt. Fortunately, after sitting idle for 15 months, the device just needed a few adjustments during testing and the launch went off without incident.

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