IceCube Collaboration awarded 2021 Rossi Prize

The 2021 Bruno Rossi Prize was awarded to Francis Halzen and the IceCube Collaboration “for the discovery of a high-energy neutrino flux of astrophysical origin.”

The Bruno Rossi Prize is awarded annually by the High Energy Astrophysics Division of the American Astronomical Society. The 2021 HEAD awards were announced last night at the 237th AAS Meeting, which is being held virtually. Named after Italian experimental physicist Bruno Rossi—who made major contributions to particle physics and the study of cosmic rays, launched the field of X-ray astronomy, and discovered the first X-ray source, SCO X-1—the Rossi Prize is awarded “for a significant contribution to High Energy Astrophysics, with particular emphasis on recent, original work.”

The IceCube Collaboration is made up of over 300 researchers from 12 institutions in 53 countries. Halzen, the Hilldale and Gregory Breit Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is the principal investigator of IceCube. The international group maintains and operates the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, a cubic kilometer of ice at the South Pole instrumented with optical sensors that can detect signals from high-energy neutrinos from outer space.

Read the full story at IceCube’s website

Ellen Zweibel elected AAAS Fellow

Congrats to Astronomy and Physics professor Ellen Zweibel on her election as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She was elected “for distinguished contributions to quantify the role of magnetic fields in shaping the cosmos on all scales.” Read the full story about all six UW–Madison faculty who earned this honor.

New study provides understanding of astrophysical plasma dynamics

plasma from a sun-like star in the upper left corner is coming out like a string that swirls like a whirlpool around a dot in the center of the image

Stars, solar systems, and even entire galaxies form when astrophysical plasma — the flowing, molten mix of ions and electrons that makes up 99% of the universe — orbits around a dense object and attaches, or accretes, on to it. Physicists have developed models to explain the dynamics of this process, but in the absence of sending probes to developing stars, the experimental confirmation has been hard to come by.

In a study published in Physical Review Letters September 25, University of Wisconsin–Madison physicists recreated an astrophysical plasma in the lab, allowing them to investigate the plasma dynamics that explain the accretion disk formation. They found that electrons, not the momentum-carrying ions, dominate the magnetic field dynamics in less dense plasmas, a broad category that includes nearly all laboratory astrophysical plasma experiments.

plasma from a sun-like star in the upper left corner is coming out like a string that swirls like a whirlpool around a dot in the center of the image
An artist’s conception of the accretion disk | Credit: P. Marenfeld/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Like water swirling around and down an open drain, plasma in an accretion disk spins faster nearer the heavy object in the center than further away. As the plasma falls inward, it loses angular momentum. A basic physics principle says that angular momentum needs to be conserved, so the faster rotating plasma must be transferring its momentum away from the center.

“This is an outstanding problem in astrophysics — how does that angular momentum get transported in an accretion disk?” says Ken Flanagan, a postdoctoral researcher with the department of physics at UW–Madison and lead author of the study.

The simplest explanation is friction, but it was ruled out when the corresponding accretion times, in some cases, would be longer than the age of the universe. A model developed by theoretical physicists posits that turbulence, or the chaotic changes in plasma flow speeds, can explain the phenomenon on a more realistic time scale.

“So ad hoc, astrophysicists say, ‘Okay, there’s this much turbulence and that explains it,’” Flanagan says. “Which is good, but you need to call in the plasma physicists to piece together where that turbulence comes from.”

Flanagan and colleagues, including UW­–Madison physics professor Cary Forest, wanted to build off an idea that the turbulence was coming from an intrinsic property of some plasmas known as magnetorotational instability. This instability is seen in plasmas that are flowing fastest near the center and are in the presence of a weak magnetic field.

“And it’s lucky because there are weak magnetic fields all around the universe, and the flow profile in the accretion disks is set by the gravitational force,” Flanagan says. “So, we thought this plasma instability could be responsible for turbulence, and it explains how accretion disks work.”

To investigate if this intrinsic plasma instability explained the observation, the researchers turned to the Big Red Ball (BRB), a three-meter-wide hollow sphere with a 3000 magnets at its inner surface and various probes inside. They activate a plasma by ionizing gas inside the BRB, then applying a current to drive its movement.

a 3-meter-diameter sphere, painted red and with tons of probes all around it
The Big Red Ball is one of several pieces of scientific equipment being used to study the fundamental properties of plasma in order to better understand the universe, where the hot, ionized gas is abundant. | Photo by Jeff Miller / UW–Madison)

Because they had previously been encountering problems in driving very fast flows, they tried a new technique to drive the flow across the entire volume of plasma, as opposed to just the edges. Fortuitously, the BRB had magnetic field probes from a previous experiment still attached, and when they activated the plasma under these conditions, they found that this new flow setup amplified the magnetic field strength with a peak at the center nearly twenty times the baseline strength.

“We didn’t expect to see that at all, because usually in plasma physics the simplest model is to think of plasmas as one fluid with the heavier ions dominating momentum,” Flanagan says. “The results suggested that the plasma is in the Hall regime, which means the electrons and their motion are entirely responsible for the plasma moving around magnetic fields.”

If they were correct in assuming it was the Hall effect that was driving magnetic field amplification, the equations governing magnetic fields and electric currents say that if you drive the current in the opposite direction, the strength of the magnetic field would be canceled out. So, they switched the current and measured the magnetic field strength: it was zero, supporting the Hall regime explanation.

While the results are not directly applicable to the plasma accretion disks around, say, a very dense black hole, they do directly impact the earth-bound experiments that attempt to recreate and study them.

“Nearly all plasma astrophysical experiments operate in the Hall regime, and so this sort of large qualitative effect is something you’re going to have to pay attention to when you make these sorts of flows in laboratory astrophysical plasmas,” Flanagan says. “In that sense, this work has a pretty broad impact for lots of different research areas.”

This research was supported in part by the National Science Foundation (#1518115) and by the U.S. Department of Energy (#DE-SC0018266).

NSF Physics Frontier Center for neutron star modeling to include UW–Madison

A green, egg-shaped density in the middle has two cones of dark blue representing the gravitational waves projecting perpendicularly out either side of the green density

A group of universities, including the University of Wisconsin–Madison, has been named the newest Physics Frontier Center, the National Science Foundation announced Aug. 17. The center expands the reach and depth of existing capabilities in modeling some of the most violent events known in the universe: the mergers of neutron stars and their explosive aftermath.

The Network for Neutrinos, Nuclear Astrophysics, and Symmetries (N3AS) is already an established hub of eight institutions, including UW–Madison, that uses the most extreme environments found in astrophysics — the Big Bang, supernovae, and neutron star and black hole mergers — as laboratories for testing fundamental physics under conditions beyond the reach of Earth-based labs. The upgrade to a Physics Frontier Center adds five institutions, provides $10.9 million in funding for postdoctoral fellowships and allows members to cover an expanded scope of research.

“For 20 years, we’ve expected that the growing precision of astrophysical and cosmological measurements would make this field an increasingly important part of fundamental physics. Indeed, four monumental discoveries — neutrino masses, dark matter, the accelerating universe, and gravitational waves — have confirmed this prediction,” says A. Baha Balantekin, a professor of physics at UW–Madison and one of the principal investigators for N3AS.

Read the full story 

Vandenbroucke group plays instrumental role in proving viability of innovative gamma-ray telescope

Scientists in the Cherenkov Telescope Array (CTA) consortium have detected gamma rays from the Crab Nebula using the prototype Schwarzschild-Couder Telescope (pSCT), proving the viability of the novel telescope design for use in gamma-ray astrophysics. The announcement was made today by Justin Vandenbroucke, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, on behalf of the CTA Consortium at the virtual 236th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS).

“The Crab Nebula is the brightest steady source of TeV, or very high-energy, gamma rays in the sky, so detecting it is an excellent way of proving the pSCT technology,” says Vandenbroucke, who is also affiliated with the Wisconsin IceCube Particle Astrophysics Center (WIPAC) at UW–Madison. “Very high-energy gamma rays are the highest energy photons in the universe and can unveil the physics of extreme objects, including black holes and possibly dark matter.”

Vandenbroucke is coleader of a team made up of WIPAC scientists and other collaborators that developed and operate a critical part of the telescope: its high-speed camera. Vandenbroucke has worked on the design, construction, and integration of the camera since 2009.

Read the full story on the WIPAC website. The WIPAC story was adapted from a CTA press release.

Keith Bechtol, Rob Morgan win UW’s Cool Science Image contest

pieced-together photos of space with a helix nebula the most visible

pieced-together photos of space with a helix nebula the most visibleCongrats to Prof. Keith Bechtol and graduate student Rob Morgan for their winning entry in the UW–Madison Cool Science Images contest! Their winning entry — one of 12 selected out of 101 entries — earns them a large-format print which initially will be displayed in a gallery at the McPherson Eye Research Institute’s gallery in the WIMR building.

This snapshot of the sky contains thousands of distant galaxies, each containing billions of stars. Bechtol and Morgan were looking for the flash of the explosion of a single star, the potential source of a sub-atomic particle called a neutrino, spotted zipping through the Earth by the IceCube Neutrino Observatory at the South Pole. The distant galaxies, swirling billions of light years away, are all the harder to see because of nearby objects, like the pictured Helix Nebula. The image was captured with a Dark Energy Camera and Victor M. Blanco telescope.

To learn more about the Cool Science Images contest and to view the other winning images, please visit


Profs Eriksson, McDermott, Vandenbroucke awarded UW2020s

image of research station at south pole plus a purely decorative image on the bottom half

Twelve projects have been chosen for Round 6 of the UW2020: WARF Discovery Initiative, including three from faculty in the Department of Physics (Mark Eriksson, Robert McDermott, and Justin Vandenbroucke). These projects were among 92 proposals submitted from across campus. The initiative is funded by the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

The projects were reviewed by faculty across the university. The UW2020 Council, a group of 17 faculty from all divisions of the university, evaluated the merits of each project based on the reviews and their potential for making significant contributions to their field of study.

The goal of UW2020 is to stimulate and support cutting-edge, highly innovative and groundbreaking research at UW–Madison and to support acquisition of shared instruments or equipment that will foster significant advances in research.

Acquisition of a cryogen-free Physical Properties Measurement System (PPMS) for characterization of quantum materials and devices

The project addresses a barrier for UW–Madison researchers in measuring electronic, magnetic, and thermal properties of quantum materials at low temperatures, namely the increasing high costs of cryogens (liquid helium) and lack of a convenient means to perform these measurements in a shared facility. Low-temperature electronic, magnetic, and thermal properties of materials are crucial for fundamental materials discovery and for applications in quantum information, nonvolatile memory, and energy conversion devices.

This project will acquire a cryogen-free Physical Properties Measurement System (PPMS) and house it as a shared-user facility instrument within the Wisconsin Centers for Nanotechnology (CNT). This instrument would be open for all UW–Madison users.

Currently, these measurements depend on external collaborations or low-temperature setups in PI labs which either consume large amounts of cryogens or require time-consuming reconfigurations from experiment to experiment. Having a cryogen-free PPMS would allow researchers to spend less time and money in setting up experiments, potentially freeing up resources for scientific investigations that include new superconducting and topological material discoveries and characterizations of materials for advanced microelectronics and magnetic memory systems.

Jason Kawasaki, assistant professor of materials science and engineering

Jerry Hunter, director of the Wisconsin Centers for Nanotechnology

Paul Voyles, professor of materials science and engineering and MRSEC Director

Song Jin, professor of chemistry

Mark Eriksson, professor of physics

Thomas Kuech, professor of chemical and biological engineering

Daniel Rhodes, assistant professor of materials science and engineering

Chang-Beom Eom, professor of materials science and engineering

Paul Evans, professor of materials science and engineering

Michael Arnold, professor of materials science and engineering

Dakotah Thompson, assistant professor of mechanical engineering

Cracking the structure of ice: establishing a cryogenic electron backscatter diffraction and Raman capability at UW–Madison

The structure and physical properties of ice determine the behavior of glaciers, ice sheets, and polar ice caps (both terrestrial and extraterrestrial). Moreover, ice is of interest because of its unique light transmission properties, which are currently being harnessed by one of the world’s largest astrophysical experiments through the UW–led IceCube collaboration.

This project will develop the capability to perform scanning electron microscopy (SEM) of water and CO2 ice in the UW–Madison Geoscience Department, focusing on electron backscatter diffraction (EBSD) analysis for ice microstructure and Raman spectroscopy for ice composition. EBSD of ice is an extremely rare analytical capability worldwide.

Having this highly specialized type of analysis capability for ice will enable advances in glaciology, climate science, physics, materials science and planetary science. This technology can accelerate research on glacial sliding and ice deformation, and inform long-standing questions about the transformation of air bubbles to clathrates in glacial ice and their potential as archives of Earth’s past atmosphere. In addition, understanding the structure of ice is critical, for example, to accurate measurement of cosmic ray interactions in the IceCube Neutrino Observatory.

As the only lab in the U.S. offering combined ice EBSD analysis and ice Raman analysis, UW–Madison will establish itself as a nexus for cryosphere research, attracting many collaborations from outside UW–Madison.

Chloe Bonamici, assistant professor of geoscience

Lucas Zoet, assistant professor of geoscience

Shaun Marcott, associate professor of geoscience

Justin Vandenbroucke, associate professor of physics/WIPAC

John Fournelle, senior scientist of geoscience

Pavana Prabhakar, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering

Richard Hartel, professor of food engineering

Hiroki Sone, assistant professor of geological engineering

Interdisciplinary engineering of quantum information systems

This project represents a synergistic effort toward engineering practical quantum information systems (QIS). The research unites the experimental superconducting and semiconducting qubit teams on campus with advanced materials characterization and microwave engineering expertise to uncover the underlying sources of decoherence that limit qubit performance and develop next-generation quantum devices for scalable quantum computing and quantum sensing. This effort will build new interdisciplinary connections that nourish the quantum ecosystem at UW–Madison, cutting across departmental and disciplinary lines.

The potential of QIS has been recognized recently by the $1.4 billion federal National Quantum Initiative, and the newly formed Wisconsin Quantum Institute at UW is home to world-leading efforts in the physics of QIS. This project is a next step in expanding these directions to incorporate the engineering effort necessary to develop practical systems capable of solving real-world problems.

Robert McDermott, professor of physics

Mark Eriksson, professor of physics

Susan Hagness, professor of electrical and computer engineering

Paul Voyles, professor of materials science and engineering

Kangwook Lee, professor of electrical and computer engineering

The Milky Way’s satellites help reveal link between dark matter halos and galaxy formation

map of observational areas from the DES and Pan-STARRS survey shows which regions of the sky were covered in this analysis. Areas darkened out were not covered, white areas were where data was collected and from where it was analyzed

This story was adapted from one originally published by Nathan Collins at SLAC. Read the original version here.

Just as the sun has planets and the planets have moons, our galaxy has satellite galaxies, and some of those might have smaller satellite galaxies of their own. To wit, the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a relatively large satellite galaxy visible from the southern hemisphere, is thought to have brought at least six of its own satellite galaxies with it when it first approached the Milky Way, based on recent measurements from the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission.

Astrophysicists believe that dark matter is responsible for much of that structure, and now researchers with the Dark Energy Survey — including University of Wisconsin­–Madison assistant professor of physics Keith Bechtol and his research group — have drawn on observations of faint galaxies around the Milky Way to place tighter constraints on the connection between the size and structure of galaxies and the dark matter halos that surround them. At the same time, they have found more evidence for the existence of LMC satellite galaxies and made a new prediction: If the scientists’ models are correct, the Milky Way should have an additional 150 or more very faint satellite galaxies awaiting discovery by next-generation projects such as the Vera C. Rubin Observatory’s Legacy Survey of Space and Time.

profile photo of keith bechtol
Prof. Keith Bechtol

Two new studies, forthcoming in the Astrophysical Journal and available as preprints (pre-print 1; pre-print 2), are part of a larger effort to understand how dark matter works on scales smaller than our galaxy.

“The ultra-faint galaxies that orbit the Milky Way are small clouds of dark matter with just enough stars to see that they exist. They are nearly invisible, but if spotted, they make excellent natural laboratories to study dark matter,” Bechtol says. “We hope to learn what dark matter is made of, how it was produced in the early Universe, and what relationship it has to the known particle species.”

Shining galaxies’ light on dark matter

Astronomers have long known the Milky Way has satellite galaxies, including the Large Magellanic Cloud, which can be seen by the naked eye from the southern hemisphere, but the number was thought to be around just a dozen or so until around the year 2000. Since then, the number of observed satellite galaxies has risen dramatically. Thanks to the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and more recent discoveries by projects including the Dark Energy Survey (DES), the number of known satellite galaxies has climbed to about 60.

Such discoveries are always exciting, but what’s perhaps most exciting is what the data could tell us about the cosmos. “For the first time, we can look for these satellite galaxies across about three-quarters of the sky, and that’s really important to several different ways of learning about dark matter and galaxy formation,” said Risa Wechsler, director of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC). Last year, for example, the DES team used data on satellite galaxies in conjunction with computer simulations to place much tighter limits on dark matter’s interactions with ordinary matter.

Now, the team is using data from a comprehensive search over most of the sky to ask different questions, including how much dark matter it takes to form a galaxy, how many satellite galaxies we should expect to find around the Milky Way and whether galaxies can bring their own satellites into orbit around our own – a key prediction of the most popular model of dark matter.

Hints of galactic hierarchy

The answer to that last question appears to be a resounding “yes.”

The possibility of detecting a hierarchy of satellite galaxies first arose some years back when DES detected more satellite galaxies in the vicinity of the Large Magellanic Cloud than they would have expected if those satellites were randomly distributed throughout the sky. More data was needed to conclusively attribute this excess to galaxies that arrived at the Milky Way with the Large Magellanic Cloud.

map of observational areas from the DES and Pan-STARRS survey shows which regions of the sky were covered in this analysis. Areas darkened out were not covered, white areas were where data was collected and from where it was analyzed
The two studies probed, analyzed and characterized data from years of observation in two sky surveys.

In the first published study, the DES group combined observations from DES with those from the Pan-STARRS survey, together covering 75% of the sky, to test this hypothesis. The DES data represents nearly 40,000 images from a 500-million-pixel camera collected over three years from a telescope in Chile.

The raw DES data was run through a series of data compressions, including a final step led by Bechtol’s group, to identify and catalog individual stars, including their color, which infers temperature, and how far away they are.

“We throw the star catalog into our search algorithms, which are responsible for identifying small groups of stars that are clustered in space and have similar colors and brightness. There’s a particular distribution for what we expect the stars to look like in ultrafaint galaxies,” says UW-Madison physics graduate student Mitch McNanna. “Even then we’re not 100 percent sure that we’ve found a real galaxy, so we also collect spectroscopic observations to measure the doppler motion of the stars. Hopefully we see the group of stars is moving in a way that’s different from the rest of the stars in the Milky Way halo.”

The team, including Alex Drlica-Wagner at Fermilab, produced a model of which satellite galaxies are most likely to be seen by current surveys, given where they are in the sky as well as their brightness, size and distance.

In the second study, led by others in the DES team including Ethan Nadler at Stanford University and collaborators, the team took the findings of the latest satellite census and analyzed computer simulations of millions of possible universes. Those simulations model the formation of dark matter structure that permeates the Milky Way, including details such as smaller dark matter clumps within the Milky Way that are expected to host satellite galaxies. To connect dark matter to galaxy formation, the researchers used a flexible model that allows them to account for uncertainties in the current understanding of galaxy formation, including the relationship between galaxies’ brightness and the mass of dark matter clumps within which they form.

Those components in hand, the team ran their model with a wide range of parameters and searched for simulations in which LMC-like objects fell into the gravitational pull of a Milky Way-like galaxy. By comparing those cases with galactic observations, they could infer a range of astrophysical parameters, including how many satellite galaxies should have tagged along with the LMC. The results were consistent with Gaia observations: Six satellite galaxies should currently be detected in the vicinity of the LMC, moving with roughly the right velocities and in roughly the same places as astronomers had previously observed. The simulations also suggested that the LMC first approached the Milky Way about 2.2 billion years ago, consistent with high-precision measurements of the motion of the LMC from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Galaxies yet unseen

In addition to the LMC findings, the team also put limits on the connection between dark matter halos and galaxy structure. For example, in simulations that most closely matched the history of the Milky Way and the LMC, the smallest galaxies astronomers could currently observe should have stars with a combined mass of around a hundred suns, and about a million times as much dark matter. According to an extrapolation of the model, the faintest galaxies that could ever be observed could form in halos up to a hundred times less massive than that.

And there could be more discoveries to come: If the simulations are correct, there are around 150 more satellite galaxies – more than double the number already discovered – hovering around the Milky Way. The discovery of those galaxies would help confirm the researchers’ model of the links between dark matter and galaxy formation, and likely place tighter constraints on the nature of dark matter itself.