Image of cosmic dust courtesy of NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team STScI/AURA
Sept. 6, 2013
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – Once considered solely an annoyance to astronomers wishing to
observe deep-space objects, cosmic dust is now regarded as significant to the evolution
of galaxies, stars and even life in the universe.
Illinois Wesleyan University Assistant Professor of Physics Thushara Perera will study
the properties of cosmic dust through a National Science Foundation grant. The $178,261
grant will support obtaining laboratory instruments and fund the stipends for two
student research assistants each year of the two-year grant period.
Perera said researchers agree that cosmic dust is significant to star formation. In
addition, cosmic grain surfaces are “hotbeds” of chemical activity that ultimately
give rise to complex molecules, some of which are prebiotic molecules believed to
be involved in the processes leading to the origin of life.
“The thermal emission from many dusty environments is not well understood, however,”
said Perera. “Recent laboratory work has shown that the opacity of dust in the millimeter/sub-millimeter
optical properties is more complicated than previously thought.”
Perera expects the NSF-funded project to significantly enhance lab data on cosmic
analog dusts, leading to greater understanding of the thermal, physical and chemical
conditions that prevail in dusty regions of space.
Lab equipment utilized in the measurements will include a dry cryocooler and a custom-made
Fourier Transform Spectrometer (FTS). To construct the FTS, Perera will adapt the
design from an instrument aboard the COBE cosmology satellite. He said it is rare
to find a FTS of this sort in the physics labs of liberal arts institutions like Illinois
Wesleyan. Both the cryocooler and the FTS will be used in student instructional labs,
particularly for courses such as Experimental Physics and Materials Physics, when
not being used for research.
Perera joined the faculty at Illinois Wesleyan in 2008 after earning a Ph.D. from
Case Western Reserve University. His research area — observational and experimental
cosmology — lies at the intersection of physics and astronomy. While a graduate student,
Perera worked on detecting dark matter, a hypothesized form of matter that makes up
most of the inferred mass of our universe and galaxy. As a postdoctoral researcher
at the University of Chicago and later at the University of Massachusetts, Perera
developed and used superconducting and semiconducting technologies for millimeter-wavelength
observations of the oldest structures in the universe, such as massive early galaxies
and the cosmic microwave background.
“RUI: Experiments on Cosmic Dust Analogs to Determine their Optical Properties in
the Millimeter/Sub-Millimeter” is funded through August 2015.