Solving the dark energy mystery: A new sky survey assignment for a 45-year-old telescope

SMU Research

Originally Posted: Feb. 19, 2018

SMU and other members of a scientific consortium prepare for installation of the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument to survey the night sky from a mile-high mountain peak in Arizona

As part of a large scientific consortium studying dark energy, SMU physicists are on course to help create the largest 3-D map of the universe ever made.

The map will emerge from data gathered by the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI) being installed on the Nicholas U. Mayall Telescope atop a mountain in Arizona.

The map could help solve the mystery of dark energy, which is driving the accelerating expansion of the universe.

DESI will capture about 10 times more data than a predecessor survey of space using an array of 5,000 swiveling robots. Each robot will be carefully choreographed to point a fiber-optic cable at a preprogrammed sequence of deep-space objects, including millions of galaxies and quasars, which are galaxies that harbor massive, actively feeding black holes.

“DESI will provide the first precise measures of the expansion history of the universe covering approximately the last 10 billion years,” said SMU physicist Robert Kehoe, a professor in the SMU Department of Physics. “This is most of the 13 billion year age of the universe, and it encompasses a critical period in which the universe went from being matter-dominated to dark-energy dominated.”

The universe was expanding, but at a slowing pace, until a few billion years ago, Kehoe said.

“Then the expansion started accelerating,” he said. “The unknown ‘dark energy’ driving that acceleration is now dominating the universe. Seeing this transition clearly will provide a critical test of ideas of what this dark energy is, and how it may tie into theories of gravitation and other fundamental forces.”

The Mayall telescope was originally commissioned 45 years ago to survey the night sky and record observations on glass photographic plates. The telescope is tucked inside a 14-story, 500-ton dome atop a mile-high peak at the National Science Foundation’s Kitt Peak National Observatory – part of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory.

SMU researchers have conducted observing with the Mayall. Decommissioning of that telescope allows for building DESI in it’s place, as well as reusing some parts of the telescope and adding major new sytems. As part of DESI, SMU is involved in development of software for operation of the experiment, as well as for data simulation to aid data anlysis.

“We are also involved in studying the ways in which observational effects impact the cosmology measurements DESI is pursuing,” Kehoe said. SMU graduate students Govinda Dhungana and Ryan Staten also work on DESI. A new addition to the SMU DESI team, post-doctoral researcher Sarah Eftekharzadeh, is working on the SMU software and has studied the same kinds of galaxies
DESI will be measuring.

Now the dome is closing on the previous science chapters of the 4-meter Mayall Telescope so that it can prepare for its new role in creating the 3-D map.

The temporary closure sets in motion the largest overhaul in the telescope’s history and sets the stage for the installation of the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument, which will begin a five-year observing run next year.

“This day marks an enormous milestone for us,” said DESI Director Michael Levi of the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory , which leads the project’s international collaboration. “Now we remove the old equipment and start the yearlong process of putting the new stuff on.”

More than 465 researchers from about 71 institutions are participating in the DESI collaboration.

The entire top end of the telescope, which weighs as much as a school bus and houses the telescope’s secondary mirror and a large digital camera, will be removed and replaced with DESI instruments. A large crane will lift the telescope’s top end through the observing slit in its dome.

Besides providing new insights about the universe’s expansion and large-scale structure, DESI will also help to set limits on theories related to gravity and the formative stages of the universe, and could even provide new mass measurements for a variety of elusive yet abundant subatomic particles called neutrinos.

“One of the primary ways that we learn about the unseen universe is by its subtle effects on the clustering of galaxies,” said DESI collaboration co-spokesperson Daniel Eisenstein of Harvard University. “The new maps from DESI will provide an exquisite new level of sensitivity in our study of cosmology.” READ MORE

By | 2018-02-19T09:55:54+00:00 February 19th, 2018|Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, Dedman College Research, Faculty News, Physics|Comments Off on Solving the dark energy mystery: A new sky survey assignment for a 45-year-old telescope