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UC Berkeley Press Release

Moore Foundation awards $2.38 million for supernova research

– The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation of San Francisco has awarded the University of California, Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory $2,377,000 to help analyze basic data on stellar explosions that could pin down the nature of the mysterious "dark energy" that permeates the universe and appears to be accelerating its expansion.

The grant will support the work of the Nearby Supernova Factory (SNfactory), a recently begun international collaboration that aims to gather reams of data on at least 300 Type Ia supernovas - exploding stars used as mileposts to map the geometry of the universe. The data will help astronomers establish whether, as many think, the stars exploding today are identical in brightness to similar stars that exploded more than 10 billion years ago, not long after the origin of the universe.

"Because Type Ia supernovae are so bright, and so nearly uniform in their brightness, they are incomparable standard candles for studying the cosmos," said UC Berkeley physics professor Saul Perlmutter, co-principal investigator and senior scientist in the Physics Division of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "Comparing the brightness and redshift of distant Type Ia supernovae led us to the discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. The same kinds of observations will be key to discovering the nature of the dark energy that drives that acceleration."

The Moore Foundation grant will support the development of a high-quality catalog of the brightnesses and spectra of these nearby supernovae. The spectroscopic data, collected nightly by the University of Hawaii 2.2-meter telescope atop Mauna Kea volcano, are so voluminous that special computer software is needed before astronomers can make sense of it. The software development funded by the grant will open the data to broad scientific study.

"Good as Type Ia supernovae are as standard candles, there is a residual uncertainty of a few percent in brightness measurements, and thus distance measurements," said Michael Levi, a senior fellow at the Space Sciences Laboratory and a member of LBNL's Physics Division. "If that uncertainty is due to something that drifts with redshift, it would be significant to dark energy studies like SNAP, the SuperNova/Acceleration Probe satellite that is the leading candidate for the Department of Energy's and NASA's Joint Dark Energy Mission."

SNAP's goal is to measure with precision the acceleration of the universe and to seek hints as to the identity of dark energy.

The Moore Foundation grant builds on the 1998 discovery of this "dark energy" by Perlmutter and others. So far unexplained, this mysterious new energy dominates the universe, causing it to fly apart at an accelerated rate.

Choosing among competing theories of dark energy will require distant Type Ia's to be measured with unprecedented accuracy - partly by calibrating and matching these distant supernovae with more closely observed, nearby Type Ia's. In the past, observations of nearby Type Ia's have been unpredictable, frequently incomplete, and often not the best examples for comparison with their distant relatives.

Levi, who is also co-principal investigator with Perlmutter for SNAP, said that "with this grant, we also may learn how to make Type Ia supernovae even better astronomical standard candles - thus improving the science capabilities of SNAP and other future projects, something that we are keenly interested in doing."

According to LBNL astronomer Greg Aldering, leader of the international SNfactory project, "We designed the SNfactory to discover hundreds of nearby Type Ia supernovae while they are still brightening. The goal is to collect 300 such supernovae -- close enough to measure with great precision but far enough away so their redshifts are relatively undistorted by the gravitational pull of their neighboring galaxies."

The new grant is one of five the Moore Foundation has recently made to the University of California system in astronomy and astrophysics, including grants for the creation of a 30-meter telescope (with Caltech) and to the Mount Wilson Observatory, and grants for studies of stellar atmospheres and adaptive optics.

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation was established in September 2000 by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore and his wife Betty. The Foundation funds outcome-based projects that will measurably improve the quality of life by creating positive outcomes for future generations. Grant-making is concentrated in initiatives that support the Foundation's principal areas of concern: environmental conservation, science, higher education, and the San Francisco Bay Area.


LBNL press release