Eyes on the universe: Scientists begin quest to unravel mysteries of dark energy

New telescope to create first 3D map of the faraway galaxies

Scientists hope to gather enough data to build a 3D map of the universe. DESI Collaboration 
Scientists hope to gather enough data to build a 3D map of the universe. DESI Collaboration 

Faraway galaxies could feel a lot closer if a five-year mission to create the first 3D map of the universe proves successful.

Scientists on Monday turned on thousands of fibre-optic lenses or “eyes” in the Arizona desert in an effort to unravel the mysteries of dark energy.

The cameras form part of the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument – an 11-tonne machine that gathers light from deep in the universe. Each individual eye is capable of capturing an image of a galaxy within 20 minutes.

A four-month trial run of the machine captured four million spectra, or wavelengths of light, and the test gathered more data than the combined output of all previous spectroscopic surveys.

The device – funded by the US Department of Energy with contributions from Britain, Spain and France – sits on top of a four-metre telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson.

Prof Ofer Lahav, the chairman of the consortium of seven UK universities working on the project, said it was a “revolution in astronomy” that would help scientists to better understand how the universe works.

“This survey will go deeper into space and the history of the universe than we have ever achieved before,” Prof Lahav, from University College London, said.

"It will lead to unprecedented observations that will help us characterise the mysterious nature of dark energy."

Michael Levi, from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said the 3D images showed how the universe had evolved.

He said the end result would be “a time machine where we place those objects on a timeline that reaches as far back as 11 billion years ago”.

The captured light is split into bands of colour by spectrographs to map the movements of the galaxies relative to Earth. Information, such as the chemical composition of the objects observed and relative distance and velocity, is also recorded.

As the universe expands, galaxies move apart from each other, and their light shifts to longer and redder wavelengths.

The optical fibres capture light from faraway galaxies. DESI collaboration
The optical fibres capture light from faraway galaxies. DESI collaboration

This detailed distribution of galaxies is expected to provide answers on how dark energy is influencing the expansion of the universe.

Prof Grahame Blair, from the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council, said the project would lift the lid on the “very fabric of the universe”.

“This international collaboration applies the best cutting-edge technology and expertise from across the globe to reveal more about the unknown universe than ever before,” he said.

“It is great that UK scientists are playing such a strong role in this scientific adventure.”

Published: May 17, 2021 05:00 PM

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