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Dark Energy Survey set to seek out supernovae

Last Updated on Friday, 28 June 2013 17:36
Published on Monday, 01 July 2013 23:00

The largest ever search for supernovae – exploding stars up to 10 billion times brighter than the Sun – is beginning this August. For the next five years, the Dark Energy Survey (DES) will look for these cosmic explosions, which can be used to measure precisely the growth of the universe over time. The aim of the survey is to improve understanding of Dark Energy, the mysterious force causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate. A status update on the project and candidate supernovae found during the commissioning phase will be presented by Dr Chris D'Andrea at the National Astronomy Meeting in St Andrews on Tuesday, 2 July.

dandrea3 smallView of Blanco Telescope (centre) at night. Credit: Fermilab Visual Media Services (click to enlarge)DES is operated by an international collaboration of researchers from 25 institutions and consortia, including six universities in the UK. It will use a massive new 570 Megapixel camera (DECam) installed on the four-meter diameter Blanco telescope, high in the mountains of Chile. The instrument was commissioned in September and October 2012, and this was followed by a period of science verification from November through February 2013.

"Thanks to the extreme sensitivity of the camera and to the large area of sky that can be imaged through the telescope at once (about 15 times the size of the full moon), we expect DES to find more supernovae than any previous experiment. During the verification phase, we have already identified at least 200 good candidates," said Dr D'Andrea, a researcher at the University of Portsmouth's Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation.

More than just numerous, these supernovae are very old, with the light from the most distant having travelled towards Earth for over 8 billion years. Of particular interest are Type Ia supernovae, which all have nearly the same luminosity when they reach their brightest phase. By comparing the brightness of Type Ia supernovae, scientists in DES will be able to determine accurately the distance to the supernovae and measure how the universe has expanded over time. This method was used in the Nobel Prize-winning research that led to the discovery of the accelerated expansion of the universe 15 years ago. While those researchers used a few dozen supernovae in their study, DES will find over 3500 of these objects. This glut of data poses a challenge for the team to analyse.

dandrea2 smallAerial view of Cerro-Tololo Inter-American Observatory, with the most prominent dome belonging to the 4m diameter Blanco telescope, where the Dark Energy Camera is installed and from where DES operates. Credit: NOAO/AURA/NSF (click to enlarge)"Traditionally, astronomers have identified supernovae by analysing the spectrum of light from candidates. Because DES will give us so many candidates – we already have hundreds just from the commissioning phase – we don't have the resources to do this for each individual candidate supernova. We need to use other techniques to confirm which of the objects we observe really are exploding stars," said D'Andrea

An alternative method for identifying supernovae is to monitor changes in the brightness and colour of their light over time. However, the scientists also need to know how much the universe has expanded since the star exploded. This information can be gathered by analysing the spectra of light from galaxies in which supernovae have occurred – unlike a supernova, a galaxy does not quickly fade away.

"DES is a long-term survey – we may not know whether some of our candidates are 'real' supernovae until the end of the project. However, in collaboration with Australian researchers, our team has recently been awarded 100 nights of time on a telescope in Australia over the next five years. The Anglo-Australian Telescope has the ability to take spectra of nearly 400 galaxies at the same time. With the first of these nights scheduled for September, it won't be that long before we can start to accurately classify the supernovae candidates discovered in DES," said Dr D'Andrea.

 

 


dandrea1 smallFalse-colour image of the Small Magellenic Cloud, Moon overplotted to scale. Credit: Dark Energy Survey Collaboration (click to enlarge)IMAGES

  1. False-colour image of the Small Magellenic Cloud, Moon overplotted to scale. Credit: Dark Energy Survey Collaboration.
  2. Aerial view of Cerro-Tololo Inter-American Observatory, with the most prominent dome belonging to the 4m diameter Blanco telescope, where the Dark Energy Camera is installed and from where DES operates. Credit: NOAO/AURA/NSF.
  3. View of Blanco Telescope (centre) at night. Credit: Fermilab Visual Media Services
  4. View of the Blanco Telescope (centre) at sunrise. Credit: Credit: T. Abbott and NOAO/AURA/NSF

 


SCIENCE CONTACTS

 

Dr. Chris D'Andrea

Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation
University of Portsmouth
Portsmouth, UK
Tel: +44 (0) 23 9284 3137
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

From 2-3 July, Dr D'Andrea can be contacted through the NAM 2013 Press Office (see below)

 


MEDIA CONTACTS

 

Dr Robert Massey (for free media registration)

Royal Astronomical Society
Tel: +44 (0)20 7734 3307 / 4582 x214
Mob: +44 (0)794 124 8035
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

Ms Anita Heward

Royal Astronomical Society
Mob: +44 (0)7756 034 243
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

Ms Emma Shea

Head of Development Communications
University of St Andrews
Tel: +44 (0)1334 462 167
Mob: +44 (0)785 090 0352
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

Landline numbers in NAM 2013 press room (available from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from 1-4 July, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. 5 July):
Tel: +44 (0)1334 462231, +44 (0)1334 46 2232

 


NOTES FOR EDITORS

 

Bringing together more than 600 astronomers and space scientists, the RAS National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2013) will take place from 1-5 July 2013 at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. The conference is held in conjunction with the UK Solar Physics (UKSP: www.uksolphys.org) and Magnetosphere Ionosphere Solar Terrestrial (MIST: www.mist.ac.uk) meetings. NAM 2013 is principally sponsored by the RAS, STFC and the University of St Andrews and will form part of the ongoing programme to celebrate the University's 600th anniversary.

Meeting arrangements and a full and up to date schedule of the scientific programme can be found on the official website at http://www.nam2013.co.uk

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS: www.ras.org.uk, Twitter: @royalastrosoc), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organises scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3500 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC: www.stfc.ac.uk, Twitter: @stfc_matters) is keeping the UK at the forefront of international science and tackling some of the most significant challenges facing society such as meeting our future energy needs, monitoring and understanding climate change, and global security. The Council has a broad science portfolio and works with the academic and industrial communities to share its expertise in materials science, space and ground-based astronomy technologies, laser science, microelectronics, wafer scale manufacturing, particle and nuclear physics, alternative energy production, radio communications and radar. It enables UK researchers to access leading international science facilities for example in the area of astronomy, the European Southern Observatory.

Founded in the 15th century, St Andrews is Scotland's first university and the third oldest in the English speaking world. Teaching began in the community of St Andrews in 1410 and the University was formally constituted by the issue of Papal Bull in 1413. The University is now one of Europe's most research intensive seats of learning – over a quarter of its turnover comes from research grants and contracts. It is one of the top rated universities in Europe for research, teaching quality and student satisfaction and is consistently ranked among the UK's top five in leading independent league tables produced by The Times, The Guardian and the Sunday Times.

The University is currently celebrating its 600th anniversary and pursuing a £100 million fundraising campaign, launched by Patron and alumnus HRH Prince William Duke of Cambridge, including £4 million to fund the creation of an 'Other Worlds' Think Tank and Observatory. The new think tank and Observatory project will extend the University of St Andrews' flagship work on extra-solar planets, and provide a creative environment for problem-focused research, education and continuing public engagement.

For further information go to: www.st-andrews.ac.uk/600/