The heart of darkness is a metaphor but it is quite literal when it comes to space. Not only is matter as we know it just a fraction of what is out there, it is only a few percent. That means the rest of the universe is truly unknown. Physicists have given what we don't know terms like Dark Matter and Dark Energy and the race is on to find signatures in "near space" (within a few thousand light years of Earth by measuring electrons and gamma rays.

The CALorimetric Electron Telescope (CALET) investigation will track the trajectory of cosmic ray particles and measure their charge and energy and hopefully help to identify dark matter and fit it into standard models of the universe.

CALET launched aboard the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) H-II Transfer Vehicle "Kounotori" (HTV-5) in August 2015 and was placed on the International Space Station's Japanese Experiment Module - Exposed Facility just days after its arrival. The instrument is a charged particle telescope designed to measure electrons, protons, nuclei and gamma rays. Unlike the telescopes that are used to pinpoint stars and planets in the night sky, CALET operates in a scanning mode. As it looks upward, it records each cosmic ray event that enters its field of view and triggers its detectors to take measurements of the cosmic ray. These measurements are recorded on the space station and sent to a ground station where they are fed into computers running analysis codes that allow scientists to reconstruct each event.


The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Kounotori H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV-5) is seen berthed to the International Space Station. The external CALET experiment, which will search for signatures of dark matter, is seen being extracted from the unpressurized section by the station's robotic arm, Canadarm2. An aurora over the Earth limb is visible in the background. Credit: NASA

From the resulting measurements, scientists must then separate electrons from the protons, gamma rays and the higher Z elements (chemical elements with >1 proton in the nucleus). They then sort the particles by energy to extend the existing data to higher energies and search for signatures of new astrophysics processes and phenomena like dark matter and nearby particle acceleration to study cosmic ray propagation in the galaxy.

"The major theoretical model attributes dark matter to weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs), whose nature is predicted by various high energy physics models," said CALET principal investigator Dr. Shoji Torii. "In these models, a WIMP would be its own antiparticle and, when two of them get together, they annihilate, producing known particles like electron/positron pairs, proton/anti-proton pairs, and gamma rays."

Searching for excess annihilation products (i.e. electrons and gamma rays) is one way to try to identify a dark matter candidate and this is where CALET helps scientists. CALET joins another ISS investigation searching for excess annihilation products, the Alpha Magenetic Spectrometer or AMS, which is looking at positrons and antiprotons to identify dark matter.

"Seeing an appropriate signature in the electron spectrum and/or gamma rays would be extremely important since this would set the mass scale (weight) for the dark matter particles, which would in turn allow theorists to better determine new physics associated with the WIMP," said Torii, adding that it is possible that a signature may be found that is not indicative of dark matter, but rather indicates a nearby source of charged particle acceleration. 

Source: NASA/Johnson Space Center