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Cosmological Models Proven Correct by Dark Energy Survey

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It’s hard to get a sense of the scale of the universe from our little corner of it, but scientists realized decades back that the universe is expanding. This naturally led to questions about the distribution and movement of matter out there. There are cosmological models to predict these things, but are they right? A five-year project known as the Dark Energy Survey (DES) sought to find out, and now the results are in. So far, the scientific models hold up — the universe looks pretty much like we expected it to look.

While we cannot directly observe dark matter and dark energy, we know these are the driving force behind the universe’s expansion. To test the predictions made by the standard model of cosmology, scientists needed to observe a huge number of galaxies from all different stages of the universe. That means looking at extremely distant and dim objects, which appear to us as they did billions of years ago. The DES took a decade of planning before it got underway, but the data is finally rolling in.

Images taken by the Dark Energy Survey.

To that end, the 4-meter Blanco Telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile was outfitted with a 570-megapixel camera. Previously, the best real world test of cosmological models was a European Space Agency survey using the Planck telescope of cosmic microwave background radiation, a residual signal from the big bang. That was compelling evidence, but the Dark Energy Survey goes much further. Over the last five years, the DES has observed the light from 26 million galaxies to determine how the universe has changed of the course of 7 billion years.

desDark Energy Survey

Map of dark matter made from gravitational lensing measurements of 26 million galaxies in the Dark Energy Survey. Red regions have more dark matter, blue less. Image credit: Chihway Chang/University of Chicago/DES collaboration

Monitoring the evolution of the universe over all those eons allows for better testing of the standard model of cosmology, called Lambda-CDM. The “CDM” cold dark matter, which we cannot see directly, but makes up roughly 26 percent of all mass. Lambda is the cosmological constant describing the accelerated expansion of the universe. Lambda-CDM predicts how matter will cluster on a grand scale, and the DCS data is accurate to within 5 percent of the models. That indicates modern physics has a pretty good handle on the big picture stuff.

This is a good start, but the DES project is still going strong. By acquiring more data, it will continue putting cosmological models to the test. This improved precision will help scientists determine if Lambda-CDM needs modification. That will improve our understanding of how the universe got here, and where it’s going.

Top image: Reidar Hahn/Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory

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