The greatest mysteries in the universe are dark matter and dark energy, and a husband and wife at JPL are united in their quest to solve them. In fact, the hunt for these strange phenomena is what first brought Jason Rhodes and Alina Kiessling together.
The universe is expanding at an ever-faster pace, with no discernable force propelling it. Scientists have named this effect “dark energy.” Meanwhile, galaxies spin in a way not explained by our understanding of physics. Extra mass could account for this disparity, but all attempts to directly detect this dark matter have come up empty.
Dark matter has been detected indirectly, by seeing how its gravity bends light. Using this “gravitational lensing” effect, Rhodes helped create the first high-resolution maps of dark matter in 2007.
Rhodes grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, and when he was 7 he suddenly decided he wanted to be an astronaut. He went to space camp three times, and physics was the only goal when he entered college. He doesn’t know where his attraction to science came from, since no one else in his family shares that interest. “I’m the anomaly,” he says.
Starting from a friendship born of shared research interests, Kiessling and Rhodes gravitated closer together at JPL as they studied the mysterious push and pull of the universe.
While he was working at Caltech he was contacted by Alina Kiessling, a PhD student who was visiting Southern California and seeking scientists who study gravitational lensing.
Kiessling grew up in Melbourne, Australia, and her interest in science also sparked at age 7. Her family was on a camping trip near an opal-mining town, and the glitter in the ground that caught her eye was not a generic gem, but an opalized dinosaur bone.
“That discovery made me wonder how the Earth began,” she says. By the time she was a teenager she decided that question was too small; instead she should be asking how the universe began. Astrophysics became her life’s goal.
Starting from a friendship born of shared research interests, Kiessling and Rhodes gravitated closer together at JPL as they studied the mysterious push and pull of the universe. They married in 2014.
They’ve banded together in a JPL group known as the Dark Sector, where different experts meet to share their ideas about the unseen aspects of the cosmos.
Rhodes and Kiessling are also involved in the European Space Agency’s Euclid space telescope, set to launch in the 2020s.
“To explain dark energy and dark matter will require new physics, because they don’t fit with our current models,” Rhodes says. “Whatever that new physics is, we need good evidence for it.”
“We’ll find some answer, or at least we’ll shrink the error bars on our ignorance,” he adds. “We might be able to say what is happening, but still not have an understanding why.”