Over the last couple of weeks we have had two notable successes: achieving “first light” with the camera for the Dark Energy Survey and erecting the first block of the NOvA detector at Ash River, Minn. These major milestones would not have been possible without the hard work of many of our dedicated employees. Kudos to all of you!
“First light” for any telescope or astronomical instrument is a moment of great excitement, one in which everything comes together for the first time – telescope, instrument and sky. It is a very special moment both for the people who design and build the instrument and for the astronomy community. Having spent years planning DECam’s design and overseeing the camera’s construction, the Dark Energy Survey collaboration was able to show the world magnificent images right out of the gate.
DECam achieved first light on Sept. 12, and very quickly it began producing high-resolution images of far-away galaxies. Later this year, after commissioning the instrument and verifying its performance, the DES collaboration will begin collecting data using different types of observations to understand the nature of dark energy, the mysterious force that is accelerating the expansion of our universe.
As is nearly always the case in our community, the success belongs to many: The collaboration comprises institutions from the U.S. funded by both DOE and NSF and institutions from Brazil, Germany, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. The 570-megapixel camera was constructed and tested at Fermilab, where the components built by the laboratory and our partnering institutions initially came together. The components of the camera were then shipped to Chile and reassembled and installed on the Victor M. Blanco telescope at NSF’s Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, operated by the U.S. National Optical Astronomy Observatory. The NOAO made extensive improvements to the telescope before DECam arrived at the observatory. And almost immediately after it achieved first light, DECam entered popular culture: Media reports on the Dark Energy Camera’s first light appeared in more than 200 publications and outlets around the world, and Jay Leno pronounced how much better the recent pictures by certain paparazzi would be with a 570-megapixel camera.
Our other recent major success was the erection of the first of 28 blocks of the NOvA detector in Ash River, Minn. This was very special because the blocks are so massive – five stories tall and equally as wide. Each block, built from plastic extrusions, weighs 190 metric tons when empty of scintillator oil. Workers glued the plastic extrusions into a horizontal block and then transported and rotated it into its final position using a giant pivoter, one of the most remarkable mechanical contraptions I have ever seen in particle physics. You can watch all this in a time-lapse video. The project is going well. One block down, 27 more to go!