A 6-Year Search of the Outer Solar System Turns up 461 new Objects (but no Planet 9)

In the near future, astronomers will benefit from the presence of next-generation telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (RST). At the same time, improved data mining and machine learning techniques will also allow astronomers to get more out of existing instruments. In the process, they hope to finally answer some of the most burning questions about the cosmos.

For instance, the Dark Energy Survey (DES ), an international, collaborative effort to map the cosmos, recently released the results of their six-year survey of the outer Solar System. In addition to gathering data on hundreds of known objects, this survey revealed 461 previously undetected objects. The results of this study could have significant implications for our understanding of the Solar System’s formation and evolution.

Continue reading “A 6-Year Search of the Outer Solar System Turns up 461 new Objects (but no Planet 9)”

Dark Energy Survey is out. 29 Papers Covering 226 Million Galaxies Across 7 Billion Light-Years of Space

Cosmology is now stranger to large scale surveys.  The discipline prides itself on data collection, and when the data it is collecting is about galaxies that are billions of years old its easy to see why more data would be better.  Now, with a flurry of 29 new papers, the partial results from the largest cosmological survey ever – the Dark Energy Survey (DES) – have been released.  And it largely confirms what we already knew.

Continue reading “Dark Energy Survey is out. 29 Papers Covering 226 Million Galaxies Across 7 Billion Light-Years of Space”

It Took 50 Nights of Observations to Capture New Data on the Magellanic Clouds

The Magellanic Clouds are two of our closest neighbours, in galactic terms. The pair of irregular dwarf galaxies were drawn into the Milky Way’s orbit in the distant past, and we’ve been looking up at them since the dawn of humanity. Some of our ancestors even gathered pigments and created images of them in petroglyphs and cave paintings.

Following in the footsteps of those ancient artists, astronomers recently used the Dark Energy Camera (DECam) to capture an in-depth portrait of the pair of galaxies.

Continue reading “It Took 50 Nights of Observations to Capture New Data on the Magellanic Clouds”

Over a Hundred New Large Objects Found in the Kuiper Belt

Hey Pluto, Sedna, Haumea, Makemake Et al.: You’ve got company!

While searching for distant galaxies and supernovae, the Dark Energy Survey’s powerful 570-megapixel digital camera spotted a few other moving “dots” in its field of view. Turns out, the DES has found more than 100 previously unknown trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs), minor planets located in Kuiper Belt of our Solar System.

A new paper describes how the researchers connected the moving dots to find the new TNOs, and also says this new approach could help look for the hypothetical Planet Nine and other undiscovered worlds.

Guess you never know what you’ll find once you start looking!

Continue reading “Over a Hundred New Large Objects Found in the Kuiper Belt”

New Telescope Instrument Will Watch the Sky with 5,000 Eyes

Dark Energy is the mysterious force driving the expansion of the Universe. We don’t know what dark energy is, even though it makes up about 68% of the Universe. And the expansion is accelerating, which only adds to the mystery.

A new instrument called the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI) will study dark energy. It’s doing so with 5,000 new robotic “eyes.”

Continue reading “New Telescope Instrument Will Watch the Sky with 5,000 Eyes”

Astronomers Just Found 72 Stellar Explosions, but Don’t Know What’s Causing Them

A supernova is one of the most impressive natural phenomena in the Universe. Unfortunately, such events are often brief and transient, temporarily becoming as bright as an entire galaxy and then fading away. But given what these bright explosions – which occur when a star reaches the end of its life cycle – can teach us about the Universe, scientists are naturally very interested in studying them.

Using data from the Dark Energy Survey Supernova (DES-SN) program, a team of astronomers recently detected 72 supernovae, the largest number of events discovered to date. These supernovae were not only very bright, but also very brief – a finding which the team is still struggling to explain. The results of their study were presented on Tuesday, April 3rd, at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science in Liverpool.

The team was led by Miika Pursiainen, a PhD researcher from the University of Southampton. For the sake of their study, the team relied on data from the 4-meter telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO). This telescope is part of the Dark Energy Survey, a global effort to map hundreds of millions of galaxies and thousands of supernovae in to find patterns int he cosmic structure that will reveal the nature of dark energy.

This image shows the incredibly distant and ancient supernova DES16C2nm. The supernova was discovered by the Dark Energy Survey. Image: Mat Smith and DES collaboration.

As Pursiainen commented in a recent Southampton news release:

“The DES-SN survey is there to help us understand dark energy, itself entirely unexplained. That survey then also reveals many more unexplained transients than seen before. If nothing else, our work confirms that astrophysics and cosmology are still sciences with a lot of unanswered questions!”

As noted, these events were very peculiar in that they had a similar maximum brightness compared to different types of supernove, they were visible for far less time. Whereas supernova typically last for several months or more, these transient supernovae were visible for about a week to a month. The events also appeared to be very hot, with temperatures ranging from 10,000 to 30,000 °C (18,000 to 54,000 °F).

They also vary considerably in size, ranging from being several times the distance between the Earth and the Sun – 150 million km, 93 million mi (or 1 AU) – to hundreds of times. However, they also appear to be expanding and cooling over time, which is what is expected from an event like a supernova. Because of this, there is much debate about the origin of these transient supernovae.

Artistic impression of a star going supernova, casting its chemically enriched contents into the universe. Credit: NASA/Swift/Skyworks Digital/Dana Berry

A possible explanation is that these stars shed a lot of material before they exploded, and that this could have shrouded them in matter. This material may then have been heated by the supernovae themselves, causing it to rise to very high temperatures. This would mean that in these cases, the team was seeing the hot clouds rather than the exploding stars themselves.

This certainly would explain the observations made by Pursiainen and his team, though a lot more data will be needed to confirm this. In the future, the team hopes to examine more transients and see how often they occur compared to more common supernovae. The study of this powerful and mysterious phenomenon will also benefit from the use of next-generation telescopes.

When the James Webb Space Telescope is deployed in 2020, it will study the most distant supernovae in the Universe. This information, as well as studies performed by ground-based observatories, is expected to not only shed light on the life cycle of stars and dark energy, but also on the formation of black holes and gravitational waves.

Further Reading: University of Southampton

Astronomers Find The Most Distant Supernova Ever: 10.5 Billion Light-Years Away

Astronomers have discovered the most distant supernova yet, at a distance of 10.5 billion light years from Earth. The supernova, named DES16C2nm, is a cataclysmic explosion that signaled the end of a massive star some 10.5 billion years ago. Only now is the light reaching us. The team of astronomers behind the discovery have published their results in a new paper available at arXiv.

“…sometimes you just have to go out and look up to find something amazing.” – Dr. Bob Nichol, University of Portsmouth.

The supernova was discovered by astronomers involved with the Dark Energy Survey (DES), a collaboration of astronomers in different countries. The DES’s job is to map several hundred million galaxies, to help us find out more about dark energy. Dark Energy is the mysterious force that we think is causing the accelerated expansion of the Universe.

DES16C2nm was first detected in August 2016. Its distance and extreme brightness were confirmed in October that year with three of our most powerful telescopes – the Very Large Telescope and the Magellan Telescope in Chile, and the Keck Observatory, in Hawaii.

This image from 2015 shows the same area of sky before DES16C2nm exploded. Image: Mat Smith and DES collaboration.

DES16C2nm is what’s known as a superluminous supernova (SLSN), a type of supernova only discovered 10 years ago. SLSNs are the rarest—and the brightest—type of supernova that we know of. After the supernova exploded, it left behind a neutron star, which is the densest type of object in the universe. The extreme brightness of SLSNs, which can be 100 times brighter than other supernovae, are thought to be caused by material falling into the neutron star.

“It’s thrilling to be part of the survey that has discovered the oldest known supernova.” – Dr Mathew Smith, lead author, University of Southampton

Lead author of the study Dr Mathew Smith, of the University of Southampton, said: “It’s thrilling to be part of the survey that has discovered the oldest known supernova. DES16C2nm is extremely distant, extremely bright, and extremely rare – not the sort of thing you stumble across every day as an astronomer.”

Dr. Smith went on to say that not only is the discovery exciting just for being so distant, ancient, and rare. It’s also providing insights into the cause of SLSNs: “The ultraviolet light from SLSN informs us of the amount of metal produced in the explosion and the temperature of the explosion itself, both of which are key to understanding what causes and drives these cosmic explosions.”

“Now we know how to find these objects at even greater distances, we are actively looking for more of them as part of the Dark Energy Survey.” – Co-author Mark Sullivan, University of Southampton.

Now that the international team behind the Dark Energy Survey has found one of the SLSNs, they want to find more. Co-author Mark Sullivan, also of the University of Southampton, said: “Finding more distant events, to determine the variety and sheer number of these events, is the next step. Now we know how to find these objects at even greater distances, we are actively looking for more of them as part of the Dark Energy Survey.”

The instrument used by DES is the newly constructed Dark Energy Camera (DECam), which is mounted on the Victor M. Blanco 4-meter Telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in the Chilean Andes. DECam is an extremely sensitive 570-megapixel digital camera designed and built just for the Dark Energy Survey.

The DECam in operation at its home in the Chilean Andes. The extremely sensitive, 570 megapixel camera is mounted on the Victor M. Blanco 4-meter Telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory. Image: DES/CTIO

The Dark Energy Survey involves more than 400 scientists from over 40 international institutions. It began in 2013, and will wrap up its five year mission sometime in 2018. The DES is using 525 nights of observation to carry out a deep, wide-area survey to record information from 300 million galaxies that are billions of light-years from Earth. DES is designed to help us answer a burning question.

According to Einstein’s General Relativity Theory, gravity should be causing the expansion of the universe to slow down. And we thought it was, until 1998 when astronomers studying distant supernovae found that the opposite is true. For some reason, the expansion is speeding up. There are really only two ways of explaining this. Either the theory of General Relativity needs to be replaced, or a large portion of the universe—about 70%—consists of something exotic that we’re calling Dark Energy. And this Dark Energy exerts a force opposite to the attractive force exerted by “normal” matter, causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate.

“…sometimes you just have to go out and look up to find something amazing.” – Dr. Bob Nichol, University of Portsmouth.

To help answer this question, the DES is imaging 5,000 square degrees of the southern sky in five optical filters to obtain detailed information about each of the 300 million galaxies. A small amount of the survey time is also used to observe smaller patches of sky once a week or so, to discover and study thousands of supernovae and other astrophysical transients. And this is how DES16C2nm was discovered.

Study co-author Bob Nichol, Professor of Astrophysics and Director of the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation at the University of Portsmouth, commented: “Such supernovae were not thought of when we started DES over a decade ago. Such discoveries show the importance of empirical science; sometimes you just have to go out and look up to find something amazing.”

Professor Stephen Hawking Intends To Map The Known Universe

Back in 1997, a team of leading scientists and cosmologists came together to establish the COSMOS supercomputing center at Cambridge University. Under the auspices of famed physicist Stephen Hawking, this facility and its supercomputer are dedicated to the research of cosmology, astrophysics and particle physics – ultimately, for the purpose of unlocking the deeper mysteries of the Universe.

Yesterday, in what was themed as a “tribute to Stephen Hawking”, the COSMOS center announced that it will be embarking on what is perhaps the boldest experiment in cosmological mapping. Essentially, they intend to create the most detailed 3D map of the early universe to date, plotting the position of billions of cosmic structures including supernovas, black holes, and galaxies.

This map will be created using the facility’s supercomputer, located in Cambridge’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics. Currently, it is the largest shared-memory computer in Europe, boasting 1,856 Intel Xeon E5 processor cores, 31 Intel Many Integrated Core (MIC) co-processors, and 14.5 terabytes of globally shared memory.

The COSMOS IX supercomputer. Credit: cosmos.damtp.cam.ac.uk
The COSMOS IX supercomputer. Credit: cosmos.damtp.cam.ac.uk

The 3D will also rely on data obtained by two previous surveys – the ESA’s Planck satellite and the Dark Energy Survey. From the former, the COSMOS team will use the detailed images of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) – the radiation leftover by the Big Ban – that were released in 2013. These images of the oldest light in the cosmos allowed physicists to refine their estimates for the age of the Universe (13.82 billion years) and its rate of expansion.

This information will be combined with data from the Dark Energy Survey which shows the expansion of the Universe over the course of the last 10 billion years. From all of this, the COSMOS team will compare the early distribution of matter in the Universe with its subsequent expansion to see how the two link up.

While cosmological simulations that looked at the evolution and large-scale structure of the Universe have been performed in the past – such as the Evolution and Assembly of GaLaxies and their Environments (EAGLE) project and the survey performed by the Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe at Tokyo University – this will be the first time where scientists compare data the early Universe to its evolution since.

The project is also expected to receive a boost from the deployment of the ESA’s Euclid probe, which is scheduled for launch in 2020. This mission will measure the shapes and redshifts of galaxies (looking 10 billion years into the past), thereby helping scientists to understand the geometry of the “dark Universe” – i.e. how dark matter and dark energy influence it as a whole.

Artist impression of the Euclid probe, which is set to launch in 2020. Credit: ESA
Artist impression of the Euclid probe, which is set to launch in 2020. Credit: ESA

The plans for the COSMOS center’s 3D map are will be unveiled at the Starmus science conference, which will be taking place from July 2nd to 27th, 2016, in Tenerife – the largest of the Canary Islands, located off the coast of Spain. At this conference, Hawking will be discussing the details of the COSMOS project.

In addition to being the man who brought the COSMOS team together, the theme of the project – “Beyond the Horizon – Tribute to Stephen Hawking” – was selected because of Hawking’s long-standing commitment to physics and cosmology. “Hawking is a great theorist but he always wants to test his theories against observations,” said Prof. Shellard in a Cambridge press release. “What will emerge is a 3D map of the universe with the positions of billions of galaxies.”

Hawking will also present the first ever Stephen Hawking Medal for Science Communication, an award established by Hawking that will be bestowed on those who help promote science to the public through media – i.e. cinema, music, writing and art. Other speakers who will attending the event include Neil deGrasse Tyson, Chris Hadfield, Martin Rees, Adam Riess, Rusty Schweickart, Eric Betzig, Neil Turok, and Kip Thorne.

Professor Hawking, flanked by , announcing the launch of the Stephen Hawking Medal for Science Communication, Dec. 16th, 2015. Credit:
Professor Hawking and colleagues from the Royal Society announcing the launch of the Stephen Hawking Medal for Science Communication, Dec. 16th, 2015. Credit: starmus.com

Naturally, it is hoped that the creation of this 3D map will confirm current cosmological theories, which include the current age of the Universe and whether or not the Standard Model of cosmology – aka. the Lambda Cold Dark Matter (CDM) model – is in fact the correct one. As Hawking is surely hoping, this could bring us one step closer to a Theory of Everything!

Further Reading: Cambridge News

Scientists Map the Dark Matter Around Millions of Galaxies

This week, scientists with the Dark Energy Survey (DES) collaboration released the first in a series of detailed maps charting the distribution of dark matter inferred from its gravitational effects. The new maps confirm current theories that suggest galaxies will form where large concentrations of dark matter exist. The new data show large filaments of dark matter where visible galaxies and galaxy clusters lie and cosmic voids where very few galaxies reside.

“Our analysis so far is in line with what the current picture of the universe predicts,” said Chihway Chang from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, a co-leader of the analysis. “Zooming into the maps, we have measured how dark matter envelops galaxies of different types and how together they evolve over cosmic time.”

The research and maps, which span a large area of the sky, are the product of a massive effort of an international team from the US, UK, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, and Brazil. They announced their new results at the American Physical Society (APS) meeting in Baltimore, Maryland.

According to cosmologists, dark matter particles stream and clump together over time in particular regions of the cosmos, often in the same places where galaxies form and cluster. Over time, a “cosmic web” develops across the universe. Though dark matter is invisible, it expands with the universe and feels the pull of gravity. Astrophysicists then can reconstruct maps of it by surveying millions of galaxies, much like one might infer the shifting orientation of a flock of birds from its shadow moving along the ground.

DES scientists created the maps with one of the world’s most powerful digital cameras, the 570-megapixel Dark Energy Camera (DECam), which is particularly sensitive to the light from distant galaxies. It is mounted on the 4-meter Victor M. Blanco Telescope, located at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in northern Chile. Each of its images records data from an area 20 times the size of the moon as seen from earth.

In addition, DECam collects data nearly ten times faster than previous machines. According to David Bacon, at the University of Portsmouth’s Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation, “This allows us to stare deeper into space and see the effects of dark matter and dark energy with greater clarity. Ironically, although these dark entities make up 96% of our universe, seeing them is hard and requires vast amounts of data.”

The silvered dome of the Blanco 4-meter telescope holds the DECam at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. (Photo credit: T. Abbott and NOAO/AURA/NSF)
The silvered dome of the Blanco 4-meter telescope holds the DECam at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. (Photo credit: T. Abbott and NOAO/AURA/NSF)

The telescope and its instruments enable precise measurements utilizing a technique known as “gravitational lensing.” Astrophysicists study the small distortions and shear of images of galaxies due to the gravitational pull of dark matter around them, similar to warped images of objects in a magnifying glass, except that the lensed galaxies observed by the DES scientists are at least 6 billion light-years away.

Chang and Vinu Vikram (Argonne National Laboratory) led the analysis, with which they traced the web of dark matter in unprecedented detail across 139 square degrees of the southern hemisphere. “We measured the barely perceptible distortions in the shapes of about 2 million galaxies to construct these new maps,” Vikram said. This amounts to less then 0.4% of the whole sky, but the completed DES survey will map out more than 30 times this area over the next few years.

They submitted their research paper for publication in an upcoming issue of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, and the DES team publicly released it as part of a set of papers on the arXiv.org server on Tuesday.

The precision and detail of these large contiguous maps being produced by DES scientists will allow for tests of other cosmological models. “I’m really excited about what these maps will tell us about dark matter in galaxy clusters especially with respect to theories of modified gravity,” says Robert Nichol (University of Portsmouth). Einstein’s model of gravity, general relativity, could be incorrect on large cosmological scales or in the densest regions of the universe, and ongoing research with the Dark Energy Survey will facilitate investigations of this.

Dark Energy Camera Takes Accidental Gigantic, Magnificent Picture of Comet Lovejoy

Oops! In a happy accident, Comet Lovejoy just happened to be in the field of view of the 570-megapixel Dark Energy Camera, the world’s most powerful digital camera. One member of the observing team said it was a “shock” to see Comet Lovejoy pop up on the display in the control room.

“It reminds us that before we can look out beyond our Galaxy to the far reaches of the Universe, we need to watch out for celestial objects that are much closer to home!” wrote the team on the Dark Energy Detectives blog.

On December 27, 2014, while the Dark Energy Survey was scanning the southern sky, C2014 Q2 entered the camera’s view. Each of the rectangular shapes above represents one of the 62 individual fields of the camera.

At the time this image was taken, the comet was passing about 82 million km (51 million miles) from Earth. That’s a short distance for the Dark Energy Camera, which is sensitive to light up to 8 billion light years away. The comet’s center is likely made of rock and ice and is roughly 5 km (3 miles) across. The visible coma of the comet is a cloud of gas and dust about 640,000 km (400,000 miles) in diameter.

The Dark Energy Survey (DES) is designed to probe the origin of the accelerating universe and help uncover the nature of dark energy by measuring the 14-billion-year history of cosmic expansion with high precision.

The camera just finished up the third, six-month-long season of observations, and the camera won’t be observing again until this fall.

You can download higher resolution versions of this image here.