Imagine a massive 3D camera that can map 30 million galaxies’ worth of the universe.
University scientists and students from the physics and astronomy departments will soon help construct the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument. DESI will form a 3D map of a specific portion of the galaxy, dating back 10 billion light years, in an attempt to explain why the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate and how it has evolved over time.
Announced last Thursday, seven faculty members are involved in different components of the $55 million international research project, ranging from software development and survey planning to data distribution and simulation exercises.
DESI institutional board members also represent Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Cornell and Carnegie Mellon, as well as the University of California, Berkeley and Washington University at St. Louis, among others.
Physics Prof. Gregory Tarlé, a member of DESI’s executive committee, wrote in an e-mail interview that the main component the University is responsible for constructing is DESI’s fiber positioner system.
“This consists of 5000 little robotic fiber positioners that move fibers around on the DESI focal plate,” Tarlé wrote. “At each positioning of the telescope, each of these fibers will be placed on a galaxy. The light from these fibers will be routed down the telescope to ten 500 channel spectrographs on the Mayall telescope floor.”
Physics Prof. David Gerdes, who is also working on building the fiber positioner system, said the University’s Physics Department has a long history of working on international science projects.
“We have been involved in international projects for a long time — that’s how science is done these days,” Gerdes said. “Typically how it’s done is responsibilities for different subsystems are handled by different groups. We all have to talk to each other, it’s all got to come together and its all go to work.”
While DESI is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, executive committee members and project contributors hail from all over the globe, making DESI an international collaboration with worldwide implications.
“DESI Executive Committee members are scientists from around the world that I have known for decades,” Tarlé wrote. “They are all interested in understanding the nature of dark energy and that is what brings us together to carry out this project. “
According to Tarlé, the University’s DESI team plans to start work on its portion of the project as soon as the Winter 2015 term ends and plans to complete it in the spring of 2017.
Starting in 2018, the full camera will be perched on Kitt Peak at the National Solar Observatory in Tucson, Ariz.
Tarlé wrote that for the University, being involved in the project also provides important opportunities for students, who are expected to be involved in all aspects of the project.
“The choice of UM to oversee the positioner project on DESI puts UM in a central leadership position on DESI,” he wrote. “Our undergraduate and graduate students will get an opportunity to interact with scientists from all over the world and will expose them to future research opportunities when they graduate.”
LSA junior Efrain Segarra is an Undergraduate Research Assistant for DESI and is also writing his honors thesis on the project. In an e-mail interview, Segarra wrote that he is in the process of developing anti-collision software to ensure that the 5,000 fiber optic positioners — long cylinders that can move around to view different points in the sky — do not run into each other.
“One of the most fundamental aspects of having this project at U-M is student participation — we envision students helping us test and construct the positioners,” Segarra wrote.
He added that he’s extremely excited to be a part of the DESI project.
“It’s an amazing experience because not only do I get to be a part of developing the next-generation telescope, but I also have the opportunity to see what it takes to actually get a project this big off the ground,” he wrote. “Every day I’m learning much more than just science, I’m learning about the realities to make that science happen, which is truly a unique experience as a Junior at U-M.”