Mapping the furthest reaches of outer space is no simple task, but scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, in collaboration with other researchers around the world, have come one step closer to creating a more complete picture of the universe.
Scientists at the Berkeley Lab made the first of four surveys from the Third Sloan Digital Sky Survey project’s Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey, known as BOSS, available to the public starting this month.
BOSS uses the wide-field Sloan telescope located at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico to gather the spectra — the components that make up light — of distant objects. The spectra are run through a special prism which reveal the individual wavelengths of light, which can in turn be used to understand the chemical composition and motion of these objects.
About 16 scientists man the telescope in New Mexico, while more than 600 scientists at 31 institutions around the world work on synthesizing the data that comes in. Seed funding for the project came initially from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, but over 50 funding sources are pooled from institutions worldwide as well as the U.S. Department of Energy.
David Schlegel, BOSS principal investigator and a scientist in the Berkeley Lab physics division, said that besides the scale of the collaboration, the survey is exciting for a number of reasons.
“At the fundamental level, we’re trying to measure the shape of the universe and confirm theories about its expansion,” he said. “These maps provide us with a ruler to understand the history of the universe since the Big Bang 137 billion years ago.”
According to Schlegel, whereas scientists were only able to look at the brightest million galaxies in the sky at a distance of about one billion light-years away seventeen years ago, the telescope can now look at galaxies that are six billion light-years away.
“The new instruments have made it one of the most productive telescopes in the world,” said Stephen Bailey, another scientist on the project who organizes the data transfer from the telescope in New Mexico to the Berkeley Lab. “This time there will also be more objects surveyed than all previous surveys combined.”
Any member of the public with a computer and an Internet connection can currently access the data.
“As someone who is a pipeline user, and as an observer, the way the data has been available is great,” said Nao Suzuki, a post-doctoral fellow in the Berkeley Cosmology Group who has studied quasars extensively using the data from previous Sloan surveys. “Everything is automated, ready to go and accessible.”
Bailey said, so far, two Berkeley Lab studies have emerged out of data from the survey, but he knows much more research will come out of the large amount of data available.
“Only about a quarter of the research that emerges from all this data comes from our collaboration group,” Bailey said. “The value of putting the data out there is that other people have clever ideas that we might never have thought of.”