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March 20, 2015

MSU a major collaborator in new gamma-ray observatory

Michigan State University researchers are key players in a new observatory that will study high-energy gamma rays and cosmic rays coming from extreme sources in the universe, such as black holes, dark matter and exploding stars.

The High-Altitude Water Cherenkov Gamma-Ray Observatory, located 13,500 feet above sea level near Puebla, Mexico, is the newest tool available to visualize these explosive events and learn more about the nature of high-energy radiation.

MSU is one of 14 U.S. and 10 Mexican universities in the collaboration.

The facility has capabilities for detecting the highest-energy electromagnetic radiation, and complements other gamma ray observatories around the world. HAWC is expected to be 10-15 times more sensitive than its predecessor, the Milagro experiment in Los Alamos, and will continuously monitor a wide field of view to observe two-thirds of the sky every 24 hours.

“This new survey instrument will enable us to get an unbiased view of the sky in very high-energy light,” said Jim Linnemann, MSU physics and astronomy professor and HAWC electronics coordinator. “It allows us to look at unusual and exotic sources, like gamma ray bursts, which we might see only twice a year.”

Each of HAWC’s detectors is a huge tank containing 50,000 gallons of ultrapure water with four light sensors anchored to the floor. With 300 detectors spread over an area about the size of three football fields, HAWC is able to “see” these events in relatively high resolution.

“In our field of astroparticle physics, we’re answering the really big questions about how the universe was formed, and what the future of the universe is,” said Kirsten Tollefson, MSU physics and astronomy associate professor and deputy manager of HAWC detector operations. “Is our ultimate fate going to be a big crunch or the big freeze? Will we expand forever or collapse back in on ourselves?”

Tyce DeYoung, MSU physics and astronomy associate professor, also is involved part-time with the HAWC facility.

The National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Los Alamos National Laboratory provided funding for the United States’ participation in the HAWC project. El Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología is the primary funder for Mexican participation.

For information on the project, visit


By: Tom Oswald

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