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Dark Energy Camera to seek light in deepest, darkest space

posted 19 Sept 2012, 10:37 by Mpelembe   [ updated 19 Sept 2012, 10:38 ]

Astronomers in Chile have released images of light from deep space which demonstrate the power of their new Dark Energy Camera, the most powerful sky-mapping machine

ever built. The images were taken during tests on September 12, and scientists say the camera is now ready to reach even further into space for answers to questions about dark energy and our expanding universe.

Scientists say the Dark Energy Camera's capabilities will open up a new era in human exploration of the Cosmic frontier. The camera's first stunning images, including that of the spiral galaxy NGC 1365, were taken on September 12.
NGC 1365 lies some 60 million light years from Earth. NGC 1365 features in another set of images released by the Dark Energy Survey collaboration of international scientists, showing its position in space relative to other heavenly bodies in the Formax cluster of galaxies.

Another set of images shows the Small Magallanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy approximately 200,000 light years from Earth, characterised in the Dark Energy Camera's image as a cloud of green points of light.

But while the images are impressive, the camera is designed to probe much deeper into space.

The Dark Energy Camera is the realisation of eight years planning and construction. It was built at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois., and mounted on the Victor M. Blanco telescope at the National Science Foundation's Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, which is the southern branch of the U.S. National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO). With this device, roughly the size of a phone booth, astronomers and physicists will probe the mystery of dark energy, the force they believe is causing the universe to expand faster and faster.

The 570-megapixel camera is the most powerful sky-mapping machine ever created, able to see light from over 100,000 galaxies up to eight billion light years away in each snapshot. The September 12 images of ancient starlight - captured and recorded for the first time - may provide the scientists with clues as to why the universe's rate of expansion in accelerating rather than slowing due to gravity.

Scientists in the Dark Energy Survey collaboration will use the new camera to carry out the largest galaxy survey ever undertaken, and will use that data to carry out four probes of dark energy, studying galaxy clusters, supernovae, the large-scale clumping of galaxies and weak gravitational lensing. This will be the first time all four of these methods will be possible in a single experiment.

The survey is expected to begin in December, after the camera is fully tested, and will take advantage of the excellent atmospheric conditions in the Chilean Andes to deliver pictures with the sharpest resolution seen in such a wide-field astronomy survey. In just its first few nights of testing, the camera has already delivered images with excellent and nearly uniform spatial resolution.

Over five years, the survey will create detailed colour images of one-eighth of the sky, or 5,000 square degrees, to discover and measure 300 million galaxies, 100,000 galaxy clusters and 4,000 supernovae.

According to Chris Smith, director of the Cerro-Tololo Inter-American Observatory, "With it, we provide astronomers from all over the world a powerful new tool to explore the outstanding questions of our time, perhaps the most pressing of which is the nature of dark energy."