Monthly Archives: October 2012

Dark Energy Survey First Light!

Last month the Dark Energy Survey project achieved first light from its remote location in Chile’s Atacama Desert. The term first light is used by astronomers to refer to the first observation by a new instrument.

And what an instrument this is! It is in fact the world’s most powerful digital camera. This Dark Energy Camera, or DECam, is a 570 Megapixel optical survey camera with a very wide field of view. The field of view is over 2 degrees, which is rather unusual in optical astronomy. And the camera requires special CCDs that are sensitive in the red and infrared parts of the spectrum. This is because distant galaxies have their light shifted toward the red and the infrared by the cosmological expansion. If the galaxy redshift is one,  the light travels for about 8 billion years and the wavelength of light that the DECam detects is doubled, relative to what it was when it was originally emitted.

Dark Energy Camera

Image: DECam, near center of image, is deployed at the focus of the 4-meter Victor M. Blanco optical telescope in Chile (Credit: Dark Energy Survey Collaboration)

The DECam has been deployed to further our understanding of dark energy through not just one experimental method, but in fact four different methods. That’s how you solve tough problems – by attacking them on multiple fronts.

It’s taken 8 years to get to this point, and there have been some delays, as normal for large projects. But now this new instrument is mounted at the focal plane of the existing 4-meter telescope of the National Science Foundation’s Cerro Tololo Inter-American observatory in Chile. It will begin its program of planned measurements of several hundred million galaxies starting in December after several weeks of testing and calibration. Each image from the camera-telescope combination can capture up to 100,000 galaxies out to distances of up to 8 billion light years. This is over halfway back to the origin of the universe almost 14 billion years ago.

In a previous blog entry I talked about the DES and the 4 methods in some detail. In brief they are based on observations of:

  1. Type 1a supernova (the method used to first detect dark energy)
  2. Very large scale spatial correlations of galaxies separated by 500 million light-years (this experiment is known as Baryon Acoustic Oscillations since the galaxy separations reflect the imprint of sound waves in the very early universe, prior to galaxy formation)
  3. The number of clusters of galaxies as a function of redshift (age of the universe)
  4. Gravitational lensing, i.e. distortion of background images by gravitational effects of foreground clusters in accordance with general relativity

NGC 1365

Image: NGC 1365, a barred spiral galaxy located in the Fornax cluster located 60 million light years from Earth (Credit: Dark Energy Survey Collaboration)

What does the Dark Energy Survey team, which has over 120 members from over 20 countries, hope to learn about dark energy? We already have a good handle on its magnitude, at around 73% presently of the universe’s total mass-energy density.

The big issue is does it behave as a cosmological constant or as something more complex? In other words, how does the dark energy vary over time and is there possibly some spatial variation as well? And what is its equation of state, or relationship between its pressure and density?

With a cosmological constant explanation the relationship is Pressure = – Energy_density, a negative pressure, which is necessary in any model of the dark energy, in order for it to drive the accelerated expansion seen for the universe. Current observations from other experiments, especially those measuring the cosmic microwave background, support an equation of state parameter within around 5% of the value -1, as represented in the equation in the previous sentence. This is consistent with the interpretation as a pressure resulting from the vacuum. Dark energy appears also to have a constant or nearly constant density per unit volume of space. It is unlike ordinary matter and dark matter, that both drop in mass density (and thus energy density) as the volume of the universe grows. Thus dark energy becomes ever more dominant over dark matter and ordinary matter as the universe continues to expand.

We can’t wait to see the first publication of results from research into the nature of dark energy using the DECam.

References: – Press release from National Optical Astronomical Observatory on DECam first light – Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory page – WMAP 7 year results on cosmic microwave background