Nov. 09 - The most powerful sky-mapping instrument ever built is about to embark on a far-reaching survey of deepest space to find evidence of the theoretical force called Dark Energy. From a high plateau in Chile, the Dark Energy Camera is being pointed billions of light years into the cosmos in an effort by astronomers to answer questions about Dark Energy's influence over the expansion of our universe. Elly Park reports.
High on a plateau in northern Chile, one of astronomy's newest and most sophisticated instruments has begun to probe mysteries of our universe. This is the Dark Energy Camera, the most powerful sky-mapping machine ever made. From its perch at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, the camera can see some eight billion light years into space. Astronomer David James says it's designed to reveal clues about the hypothetical force called dark energy which scientists believe is likely responsible for the accelerating expansion of the universe. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DAVID JAMES, ASTRONOMER AT THE CERRO TOLOLO INTER-AMERICAN OBSERVATORY, SAYING: "It has five hundred and seventeen million pixels, and it's able to survey about six times the area of the full moon in one exposure. And we're specifically looking for signatures of dark energy, that's to say, the differential expansion of the universe, the acceleration of the universe." The Dark Energy Camera is equipped with the world's most sensitive digital lens. The camera was designed and built over eight years in the United States before being shipped to the observatory, which astronomers say is ideally located for unblemished views into deep space. Chris Smith, the astronomy director at Cerro-Tololo is looking at some of its first test pictures taken in September. They show the Formax galaxy cluster, some 60 million light years from earth. (SOUNDBITE) (English) CHRIS SMITH, CHRIS SMITH, ASTRONOMY DIRECTOR AT CERRO TOLOLO INTER-AMERICAN OBSERVATORY, SAYING: "The CTIO 4-m telescope will allow us to go much deeper and to understand the aspects of the universe with much more precision than we were able to do in between 1998 and today, and that should allow us to probe and to understand this mystery of the universe." The camera not only reaches deeper into space, it also provides a wide field of vision, allowing astronomers to compare larger images over the years and hopefully gain information at a faster pace. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DAVID JAMES, ASTRONOMER AT THE CERRO TOLOLO INTER-AMERICAN OBSERVATORY, SAYING: "It's not like the old days where you go to the telescope and take an image, and move to take another image and you have to survey the sky very very slowly, now we're able to take images of large parts of the sky, and repeat those observations many times over many years, so that we can build a very complicated but detailed picture of the universe." The power of the lens is unmatched anywhere - from the image captured in September, astronomers can zoom in on a single galaxy...like NGC 1365, part of the Formax cluster. The camera is scheduled to carry out the the largest galactic survey yet, starting in December. Dubbed "the Dark Energy Survey," over the course of five years its mission is to shed new light on one of astronomy's biggest mysteries.