Fermilab’s 40-year campaign to measure the universe

Craig Hogan

Craig Hogan, head of the Center for Particle Astrophysics, wrote this week’s column.

In 1990, a handful of Fermilab scientists joined a small consortium of universities to start the world’s first large-scale, precision digital survey of the universe, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. SDSS went on to wild success and became the most influential observatory of the past decade. Its results received more citations than the Hubble Space Telescope and played a key role in the transformation of cosmology into a precision science.

At Fermilab, SDSS led to an ambitious successor called the Dark Energy Survey. Its name comes from its science mission: To examine the effects of dark energy, the mysterious new physics that accelerates the universe. It will measure light over a swathe of the universe that extends deeper into time and space than what SDSS was able to study. For the new survey, Fermilab has built the ultra-sensitive, 570-megapixel Dark Energy Camera. This summer it will be installed on the Blanco telescope in Chile, where it will take data for the next five years.

But DES is not the end of our campaign to chart the behavior of the universe on the largest scales with pinpoint precision. Fermilab has recently joined the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope project, which will build a new dedicated telescope to undertake a still more ambitious survey. With a larger mirror, larger field of view, faster exposure time and more observing time, LSST will generate hundreds of times more data than DES.

LSST will create a comprehensive map of the evolution of the universe in space and time, taking images of billions of galaxies. It will explore changes in time by taking multiple exposures, creating a deep, wide digital movie of the entire sky. The main LSST survey is currently planned to run from 2020 to 2030. The plans and design are quite definite; indeed, the main mirrors are already being polished.

Fermilab is joining a powerful team of institutions to make LSST happen. It’s likely that we’ll partner with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications on the challenging data management, data access and database for LSST, in much the same way that we managed the data for SDSS. We will likely team up with SLAC and Brookhaven national laboratories on the development and construction of critical camera components, building on our experience with the Dark Energy Camera.

The sequence and timing of these surveys is perfect. It almost looks as if we started planning this whole campaign 20 years ago, and we now can look forward to another 20 years of exciting data and promising research.