Dark Energy Survey releases most precise look at the universe’s evolution

a black background with lots of small bright white stars

This news piece has been slightly modified from this news story, first published by Fermilab. 

The Dark Energy Survey collaboration has created the largest ever maps of the distribution and shapes of galaxies, tracing both ordinary and dark matter in the universe out to a distance of more than 7 billion light years. The analysis, which includes the first three years of data from the survey, is consistent with predictions from the current best model of the universe, the standard cosmological model. Nevertheless, there remain hints from DES and other experiments that matter in the current universe is a few percent less clumpy than predicted.

New results from the Dark Energy Survey — a large international team that includes researchers from the University of Wisconsin–Madison — use the largest ever sample of galaxies over an enormous piece of the sky to produce the most precise measurements of the universe’s composition and growth to date. Scientists measured that the way matter is distributed throughout the universe is consistent with predictions in the standard cosmological model, the best current model of the universe.

Over the course of six years, DES surveyed 5,000 square degrees — almost one-eighth of the entire sky — in 758 nights of observation, cataloguing hundreds of millions of objects. The results, announced May 27, draw on data from the first three years — 226 million galaxies observed over 345 nights — to create the largest and most precise maps yet of the distribution of galaxies in the universe at relatively recent epochs.

Since DES studied nearby galaxies as well as those billions of light-years away, its maps provide both a snapshot of the current large-scale structure of the universe and a movie of how that structure has evolved over the course of the past 7 billion years.

profile photo of keith bechtol
Keith Bechtol

“This a stringent test of the current standard cosmological paradigm, a model proposing that 95% of the universe is dark matter and dark energy that we do not yet understand,” explains UW–Madison physics professor Keith Bechtol. “By measuring the apparent positions and shapes of hundreds of millions of galaxies in our survey, we test whether the cosmic structures that have formed in the universe today match the predictions based on structures observed in the early universe.”

To test cosmologists’ current model of the universe, DES scientists compared their results with measurements from the European Space Agency’s orbiting Planck observatory. Planck used light signals known as the cosmic microwave background to peer back to the early universe, just 400,000 years after the Big Bang. The Planck data give a precise view of the universe 13 billion years ago, and the standard cosmological model predicts how the dark matter should evolve to the present. If DES’s observations don’t match this prediction, there is possibly an undiscovered aspect to the universe. While there have been persistent hints from DES and several previous galaxy surveys that the current universe is a few percent less clumpy than predicted—an intriguing find worthy of further investigation—the recently released results are consistent with the prediction.

“In the area of constraining what we know about the distribution and structure of matter on large scales as driven by dark matter and dark energy, DES has obtained limits that rival and complement those from the cosmic microwave background,” said Brian Yanny, a Fermilab scientist who coordinated DES data processing and management. “It’s exciting to have precise measurements of what’s out there and a better understanding of how the universe has changed from its infancy through to today.”

a black background with lots of small bright white stars
Ten areas in the sky were selected as “deep fields” that the Dark Energy Camera imaged multiple times during the survey, providing a glimpse of distant galaxies and helping determine their 3-D distribution in the cosmos. Photo: Dark Energy

Ordinary matter makes up only about 5% of the universe. Dark energy, which cosmologists hypothesize drives the accelerating expansion of the universe by counteracting the force of gravity, accounts for about 70%. The last 25% is dark matter, whose gravitational influence binds galaxies together. Both dark matter and dark energy remain invisible and mysterious, but DES seeks to illuminate their natures by studying how the competition between them shapes the large-scale structure of the universe over cosmic time.

DES photographed the night sky using the 570-megapixel Dark Energy Camera on the Victor M. Blanco 4-meter Telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, a Program of the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab. One of the most powerful digital cameras in the world, the Dark Energy Camera was designed specifically for DES and built and tested at Fermilab. The DES data were processed at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“These analyses are truly state-of-the-art, requiring artificial intelligence and high-performance computing super-charged by the smartest young scientists around,” said Scott Dodelson, a physicist at Carnegie Mellon University who co-leads the DES Science Committee with Elisabeth Krause of the University of Arizona. “What an honor to be part of this team.”

To quantify the distribution of dark matter and the effect of dark energy, DES relied on two main phenomena. First, on large scales, galaxies are not distributed randomly throughout space but rather form a weblike structure due to the gravity of dark matter. DES measured how this cosmic web has evolved over the history of the universe. The galaxy clustering that forms the cosmic web, in turn, revealed regions with a higher density of dark matter.

images shows a huge camera inside an observatory
The Dark Energy Survey photographed the night sky using the 570-megapixel Dark Energy Camera on the 4-meter Blanco telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, a Program of the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab. Photo: Reidar Hahn, Fermilab

Second, DES detected the signature of dark matter through weak gravitational lensing. As light from a distant galaxy travels through space, the gravity of both ordinary and dark matter can bend it, resulting in a distorted image of the galaxy as seen from Earth. By studying how the apparent shapes of distant galaxies are aligned with each other and with the positions of nearby galaxies along the line of sight, DES scientists inferred the spatial distribution (or clumpiness) of the dark matter in the universe.

Analyzing the massive amounts of data collected by DES was a formidable undertaking. The team began by analyzing just the first year of data, which was released in 2017. That process prepared the researchers to use more sophisticated techniques for analyzing the larger data set, which includes the largest sample of galaxies ever used to study weak gravitational lensing.

For example, calculating the redshift of a galaxy — the change in light’s wavelength due to the expansion of the universe — is a key step toward measuring how both galaxy clustering and weak gravitational lensing change over cosmic history.  The redshift of a galaxy is related to its distance, which allows the clustering to be characterized in both space and time.

“Redshift calibration is one topic where we significantly improved upon our year-1 data analysis,” said Ross Cawthon, a UW-Madison physics postdoc who led the redshift calibration efforts for two of the main galaxy samples. “We developed new methods and refined old ones. It has been a huge effort by DES members from all over the world.”

Ten regions of the sky were chosen as “deep fields” that the Dark Energy Camera imaged repeatedly throughout the survey. Stacking those images together allowed the scientists to glimpse more distant galaxies. The team then used the redshift information from the deep fields to calibrate measurements of redshift in the rest of the survey region. This and other advancements in measurements and modeling, coupled with a threefold increase in data compared to the first year, enabled the team to pin down the density and clumpiness of the universe with unprecedented precision.

Along with the analysis of the weak-lensing signals, DES also precisely measures other probes that constrain the cosmological model in independent ways: galaxy clustering on larger scales (baryon acoustic oscillations), the frequency of massive clusters of galaxies, and high-precision measurements of the brightnesses and redshifts of Type Ia supernovae. These additional measurements will be combined with the current weak-lensing analysis to yield even more stringent constraints on the standard model.

“DES has delivered cost-effective, leading-edge science results directly related to Fermilab’s mission of pursuing the fundamental nature of matter, energy, space and time,” said Fermilab Director Nigel Lockyer. “A dedicated team of scientists, engineers and technicians from institutions around the world brought DES to fruition.”

The DES collaboration consists of over 400 scientists from 25 institutions in seven countries.

“The collaboration is remarkably young. It’s tilted strongly in the direction of postdocs and graduate students who are doing a huge amount of this work,” said DES Director and spokesperson Rich Kron, who is a Fermilab and University of Chicago scientist. “That’s really gratifying. A new generation of cosmologists are being trained using the Dark Energy Survey.”

UW–Madison physics graduate student Megan Tabbutt was one of the many significant contributors to this work, developing new methods that contributed to an independent validation of the galaxy clustering analysis.

DES concluded observations of the night sky in 2019. With the experience of analyzing the first half of the data, the team is now prepared to handle the complete data set. The final DES analysis is expected to paint an even more precise picture of the dark matter and dark energy in the universe. And the methods developed by the team have paved the way for future sky surveys to probe the mysteries of the cosmos.

“This work represents a ‘big statement’ from the Dark Energy Survey. DES data combined with other observations provide world-leading constraints on the nature of dark energy,” Bechtol says. “At the same time, we are training a new generation of cosmologists, and pioneering advanced methodologies that will be essential to realize the full potential of upcoming galaxy surveys, including the Vera C. Rubin Observatory Legacy Survey of Space and Time.”

The recent DES results were presented in a scientific seminar on May 27. Twenty-nine papers are available on the arXiv online repository.

Dark Energy Survey result video Exploring 7 billion light years of space with the Dark Energy Survey

The Dark Energy Survey is a collaboration of more than 400 scientists from 25 institutions in seven countries. For more information about the survey, please visit the experiment’s website.