The Dark Energy Survey, which studies the accelerating expansion of our universe, uses one of the most sensitive observing tools that astronomers have: the Dark Energy Camera.
Built at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and situated on the Victor Blanco 4-meter telescope in Chile, the camera spends 30 percent of each year collecting light from clusters of galaxies for DES.
Another chunk of time goes to engineering and upgrades. The remaining one-third is split up among dozens of other observing projects.
A recent symmetry article looked at some of those projects—the ones that are studying objects within our solar system. In this follow-up, we give a sampling of how DECam has been used to reach even farther into the universe.
Studying stellar oddballs
The sun is a “normal” star, humming along, fusing hydrogen to helium in its core. Most of the stars in the universe produce energy this way. But the cosmos contains a whole collection of stranger stellar objects, such as white dwarfs, brown dwarfs and neutron stars. They also include exploding stars called supernovae. Ten projects use the DECam to study these stellar varieties.
Armin Rest, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, leads two of those projects. In the past two years, he has spent 28 nights at the Blanco Telescope looking for supernovae.
In both projects, Rest looks for light released during stellar explosions that has bounced off dust clouds on its way to our night sky. These “light echoes” preserve information about the blasts that caused them—for example, what type of star exploded and how it exploded.
“It is as if we have a time machine with which we can travel back in time and take a spectrum with modern instrumentation of an event that was seen on Earth hundreds of years ago,” Rest says.
DECam’s expertise in taking fast pictures of big areas makes this search much more efficient than it would be with other instruments, Rest says.
Following streams of stars
Astronomers have found many streams of stars winding tens of degrees across our sky. These streams are the telltale signs of galaxies interacting with one another. The gravity of one galaxy can rip the stars out of another.
Yale University’s Ana Bonaca is working on a project that uses DECam to map the stars in one such stream. It extends from Palomar 5, a conglomeration of thousands of stars at the outskirts of our galaxy. Palomar 5 is one of the lowest-mass objects being torn apart by the Milky Way, “which means that its streams are very narrow and preserve a better record of past interactions,” Bonaca says.
Scientists are hoping to tease out of these observations information about dark matter, which accounts for some 80 to 90 percent of our galaxy’s mass.
Scientists expect that in a narrow stellar stream, clumps of dark matter will create density variations. If you can map the density variations in such a stream, you can learn how the dark matter is distributed. This is where DECam’s strength comes in: The sensitive instrument collects light from deep imaging across large fields speckled with long, narrow stellar streams.
Ten other projects are using the instrument for similar research.
Bonaca and colleagues expect to publish their findings later this year. “Our preliminary maps of the Palomar 5 stream show tantalizing evidence for density variations along the stream,” she says.
Digging for galaxies
Our galaxy is just one of at least 100 billion galaxies in the universe. Those other galaxies are the focus of eight projects using the Dark Energy Camera.
The DECam Legacy Survey, for one, is currently imaging all of the galaxies in 6700 square degrees of sky. The plan, says David Schlegel of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, is to combine the information gathered from DECam and two telescopes located at Arizona’s Kitt Peak National Observatory with the images, spectral data and distance measurements collected via the long-running Sloan Digital Sky Survey.
“The combination of the Legacy Survey imaging plus SDSS spectroscopy will be used for studying the evolution of galaxies, the halo of our Milky Way and other things we’ve likely not thought of yet,” Schlegel says.
The other goal of the survey is to identify some 30 million targets to study with the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument, a recently approved instrument that will be installed on the Mayall 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak.
Members of the Legacy Survey team have been releasing their observations nearly immediately to other researchers and the public. They have much more observing time ahead of them: In total, the project was awarded 65 nights on the Blanco telescope and DECam. So far they’ve used only 22.
Weighing the clusters
Most of the galaxies in our universe are gathered in groups and clusters, drawn together by the gravity of the clumps of dark matter in which they formed. Scientists are using DECam to study how matter (including dark matter) is distributed within clusters holding hundreds to thousands of galaxies.
When you observe a galaxy cluster, you also collect light from objects that lie behind that cluster. In the same way an old, imperfect window warps the light from a streetlamp, a cluster’s galaxies, gas, and dark matter shear and stretch any background light that passes through. Astronomers analyze this bending of light from background galaxies, an effect called “gravitational lensing,” to map the mass distribution of a galaxy cluster and even measure its total mass.
Seven projects use the DECam for such studies. Ian Dell’Antonio of Brown University leads one of them. He and colleagues study the 10 largest galaxy clusters that fit within the DECam field of view; all of them are between about 500 million and 1.4 billion light-years from Earth.
The researchers are about halfway through their dozen observing nights. They have so far differentiated between gravitational lensing by galaxy cluster Abell 3128 and gravitational lensing by another background cluster. They estimate the mass of Abell 3128 is about 1000 trillion times the mass of our sun, and they have identified several clumps of dark matter, Dell’Antonio says.
The Dark Energy Camera’s large field of view is crucial to this research, but so is the camera’s design, Dell’Antonio says. “DECam was designed to have an unusually uniform focus across the field of view and with special detectors to keep the camera in focus throughout the night. Put all these things together, and you’ve got an excellent camera for gravitational lensing studies.”
And, it seems, for just about any other type of astronomical imaging scientists can think of.