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These Deep-Space Snapshots Could Help Retrace the Evolution of the Universe

Scientists at Fermilab are working on a five-year project with some really big cameras.

You could be looking right at the secret to the universe when you gaze skyward this summer. Now, if only your eyes were as powerful as a 570-megapixel camera. In April, scientists with the Dark Energy Survey, led by Josh Frieman at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, released their first major results, two years into the ongoing five-year project aimed at unraveling the evolution of the cosmos. They’re using a supersized camera—the world’s most powerful—to snap photos from Earth of deep space. We’re talking eight-billion-light-years-away-deep.

The map they created based on the images shows clumps of dark matter, which also happen to be where scientists believe galaxies were most likely to have formed. The long-term goal of the team, which includes more than 300 scientists from around the world, is to understand why the universe is expanding at an ever-faster rate.

They’re reconstructing eight billion years’ worth of the history of the universe (which is thought to be nearly 14 billion years old) through these snapshots. “That will give us a first, real indication of what dark energy is about,” Frieman says. The team will keep taking pictures for the next three years, and the resulting images will let them test their theories on how the universe has evolved to this point—and where we’re going, literally, as the Milky Way hurtles ever farther through the universe.

Telescope camera

1. Scope clear skies

Photos: Courtesy of Fermilab

The $40 million camera built at Fermilab is mounted on a massive telescope in Chile, in part because it isn’t very windy there. “Stars twinkle because of turbulence,” says Frieman. “If you take a picture through turbulence, the star would be fuzzed out.”


Galaxies snapshot

2. Shoot the stars

Because these galaxies are so far away, the snapshots require long exposures. For each spot in the sky, the camera takes 10 pictures over five years, each time leaving the shutter open for 90 seconds. Researchers analyze the composite image to see where the light wiggles—a sign that dark matter is present and bending the light with its gravitational pull.


Galaxy map

3. Map the dark

This map, based on measurements created from the composite photos, accounts for about two million galaxies. The dark red represents regions packed with galaxies and, therefore, a lot of dark matter. “It’s analogous to a terrain map,” Frieman says. “Blue is like valleys, where there’s less stuff.”

For more photos, visit darkenergysurvey.‌org.


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