21 cm Cosmology with Optimized Instrumentation and Algorithms [student: Haoxuan (Jeff) Zheng]
Thesis Committee: Professors Max Tegmark (chair), Jacqueline Hewitt, and Paolo Zuccon
Precision cosmology has made tremendous progress in the past two decades thanks to a large amount of high quality data from the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), galaxy surveys and other cosmological probes. However, most of our universe’s volume, corresponding to the period between the CMB and when the first stars formed, remains unexplored. Since there were no luminous objects during that period, it is called the cosmic “dark ages”. 21 cm cosmology is the study of the high redshift universe using the hyperfine transition of neutral hydrogen, and it has the potential to probe that unchartered volume of our universe and the ensuing cosmic dawn, placing unprecedented constraints on our cosmic history as well as on fundamental physics.
My Ph.D. thesis work tackles the most pressing observational challenges we face in the field of 21 cm cosmology: precision calibration and foreground characterization. I lead the design, deployment and data analysis of the MIT Epoch of Reionization (MITEoR) radio telescope, an interferometric array of 64-dual polarization antennas whose goal was to test technology and algorithms for incorporation into the Hydrogen Epoch of Reionization Array (HERA). In five papers, I develop, test and improve many algorithms in low frequency radio interferometry that are optimized for 21 cm cosmology. These include a set of calibration algorithms forming redundant calibration pipeline which I created and demonstrated to be the most precise and robust calibration method currently available. By applying this redundant calibration to high quality data collected by the Precision Array for Probing the Epoch of Reionization (PAPER), we have produced the tightest upper bound of the redshifted 21 cm signals to date. I have also created new imaging algorithms specifically tailored to the latest generation of radio interferometers, allowing them to make Galactic foreground maps that are not accessible through traditional radio interferometry. Lastly, I have improved on the algorithm that synthesizes foreground maps into the Global Sky Model (GSM), and used it to create an improved model of diffuse sky emission from 10 MHz through 5 THz.