Advancing Basic Science for Humanity
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research
Building on more than five decades of leadership in space science, the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research (MKI) probes the universe with satellites, earth-based observatories and laboratory experiments. MKI got its start in 1965 as the MIT Center for Space Research and joined the Kavli network in 2004. It engages in a mix of longstanding research activities, such as satellite-based X-ray astronomy, and newer projects including the search for dark matter and the study of distant planets. Key initiatives include:
- Detection of dark matter. Data from the Big Bang and observation of vast structures such as galaxy clusters indicate that most of the mass in the universe exists in a form that cannot be seen or measured like ordinary matter. MKI scientists are developing new methods to detect this “dark matter,” including a gas-based technology that may show not only the presence of dark-matter particles but the direction that they travel.
- Observing extra-solar planets. MKI is a leader in the study of planets outside our Solar System, one of the booming fields in astronomy. With a critical mass of theorists in this area, it is planning a future satellite mission to find more planets pass (transit) in front of their stars and enable astronomers to collect unusually rich data on their mass, atmosphere and other features. Only about a dozen such planets are now known. Through TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), MKI hopes to discover as many as a thousand.
- Studying the “Dark Ages” of the universe. MKI is engaged in space- and earth-based projects to study the universe as it was just before the first stars and galaxies appeared. Neutral hydrogen present at the time produced radio waves that are arriving billions of years later on a frequency just above the FM radio band. Kavli researchers are building an array of receivers in Western Australia – far from interfering radio broadcasts – to pick up those signals and observe the universe just before its first light.
- Gravitational astrophysics. When black holes collide or supernovas collapse, these violent events send out ripples in space-time. These gravity waves are predicted by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, but only now are researchers developing tools sensitive enough to detect them. MIT and now MKI have played a key role in building facilities such as LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory. With LIGO now in the fine-tuning stage, Kavli scientists look forward to an explosion of new knowledge about the nature of gravity and the dynamics of the cosmos.
Leading the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research is Robert Simcoe, the Francis L. Friedman Professor of Physics. The Institute is affiliated with the MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory as well as the departments of Physics, Chemical Engineering, Aeronautics and Astronautics, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. It participates in major space-based research projects including the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the Rossi X-Ray Timing Explorer.