21 Jun 2012 09:00:00.000
Scientists at The University of Nottingham are among a global collaboration of astronomers who are on a mission to build a satellite that will help to unlock the mysteries of the ‘dark universe’.
Researchers from the University’s School of Physics and Astronomy are among the international consortium building the Euclid satellite, which will trace the distribution and evolution of the enigmatic dark matter and dark energy throughout the Universe.
The consortium has this week been formally adopted by the European Space Agency (ESA)
as part of its Cosmic Vision programme and sets in motion an army of physicists and engineers to build and fly the mission by the end of this decade.
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Dr Frazer Pearce, Associate Professor and Reader in Astrophysics and one of the Euclid consortium members from The University of Nottingham, said: “Euclid is now an official ESA mission and solidifies the Euclid Consortium at the forefront of worldwide research into the ‘dark universe’.
“Our academics are part of a fantastic team of almost 1,000 scientists from across Europe and other parts of the world, boasting expertise in all aspects of astronomy, physics and satellite and software design.
“By measuring the shape and distance of so many galaxies across cosmic time we will be able to understand the origin of the accelerating expansion of our Universe, answering fundamental questions about the mysterious dark energy.”
Dark energy signature
The ESA has also endorsed a Multilateral Agreement (MLA) between 13 European space agencies, NASA and the Euclid Consortium for the construction of key elements of the Euclid satellite, specifically the onboard instruments, software for analysing the data and the satellite’s scientific leadership.
The Euclid consortium will provide two instruments to ESA, a visible imaging instrument, VIS, and a near infrared imaging and spectrographic instrument, NISP. These state-of-the-art instruments, equipped with wide field cameras, will create a huge amount of exceptional quality data over a large fraction of the sky. It will require sophisticated and dedicated computer resources to analyse these data, looking for the signature of dark energy, which is ironically very small even though dark energy itself makes up 75% of the energy density in the Universe.
The Euclid Consortium is the biggest astronomy collaboration ever created and is already bigger than the existing ESA Planck and GAIA missions.
“The size of the team shows the immense interest in Euclid science across Europe” added Dr Pearce. “With its mix of observational astronomers, theorists and particle physicists the University of Nottingham is very well placed to exploit this opportunity to undertake world leading science.”
The Nottingham team involved in the Euclid project also includes Professor Chris Conselice, Dr Constantinos Skordis and Dr Clare Burrage from the School of Physics and Astronomy.
Prof Conselice is an observational astronomer who specialises in galaxy formation and evolution. He was the most cited young space scientist in the world (1997-2007).
Dr Pearce is a theoretical astronomer who specialises in very large computer simulations. He is a member of the Euclid computational science working group which is generating the largest computer models ever attempted for the mission.
Dr Skordis is a specialist in new gravitational theories, testing the existence of dark matter and dark energy.
Dr Burrage is a theoretical cosmologist who is particularly interested in the interaction between dark energy and standard matter. She has just been awarded a prestigious URF by the Royal Society.
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Euclid is an M-class mission and is part of the ESA Cosmic Vision programme 2015-2025. Euclid is a 1.2m space telescope, located at 2nd large Sun-Earth Lagrange point, and will perform two major surveys of the sky over at least 5 years. The wide survey will cover 40% of the whole sky and is focused on mapping the locations and shapes of billions of galaxies. The Euclid deep field will cover a patch of the sky approximately 100 times the size of the full Moon (or 15,000 times larger than the Hubble Ultra Deep Field), to unprecedented depths. The combination of depth and sky coverage will enable Euclid to detect very rare sources like extremely high redshift quasars, and maybe the first galaxies that ever formed.
Euclid was formally selected in October 2011 for flight, with the Euclid Consortium adopted to help build Euclid on June 20th 2012. ESA will provide to the Euclid mission the spacecraft (built by industry under contract), the launch on a Soyuz rocket from the Kourou base in Guyana, operations for at least 6 years, and mission archives. The EC will provide the scientific instruments for Euclid (VIS & NISP), the data processing and scientific analysis software and archiving as well as scientific leadership for the mission. The EC is comprised of nearly a 1000 scientists from hundreds of institutions in Austria, Denmark, Italy, Finland, France, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Switzerland and UK, as well as contributions from US laboratories.
For nearly 80 years now, astronomers have known about “dark matter”; matter than does not shine or reflect light and can only be detected through its gravitational influence. Scientists still do not know the true physical nature of dark matter, but its existence has been confirmed numerous times over the last few decades. In 1999, astronomers found evidence for an even stranger component to the dark universe, namely “dark energy” that appears to driving the expansion of the Universe faster and faster. This “dark energy” makes up three quarters of the energy budget of the Universe; three times the energy associated with dark matter and over 20 times the energy in normal matter like atoms. There are many ideas of what it could be, but so far there is no compelling explanation for the nature of this mysterious substance in the Universe. Astrophysicists believe that the discovery of its very nature will revolutionize fundamental physics and our knowledge of the physical laws of nature.
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