Bots in Space: 3D Mapping the Mysteries of the Universe

5,000 finger-width,10-inch-long cylindrical robots will map the sky.


In January 2019, the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI) will begin a five-year mission to gather the light from a chosen set of galaxies, stars, and brilliant objects called quasars, thus uncovering the expansion of the universe as well as provide a look back in time—by about 11 billion years.

This galaxy-mapping project from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBL) recently received a thumbs-up in the form of funding from the Department of Energy (DOE) and will be built at the Kitt Peak National Observatory outside Tucson.

The tiny cylindrical robots will point fiber-optic cables at the light of millions of galaxies to make an enormous 3D map of the sky.

According to the LBL press release, DESI will look at one-third of the sky and will capture more than 10 times as much data as a predecessor called the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS). DESI will provide a more detailed look at the patterned clustering of visible matter in the night sky across a larger range of distances.

To prepare for DESI data analysis, software engineers are using supercomputers at Berkeley Lab’s National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) to simulate the data gathered by DESI.

DESI is one of several planned next-generation observatory projects designed to confront cosmic mysteries including dark energy, dark matter, and the universe’s first light, known as the cosmic microwave background.

“The DESI map of galaxies will reveal patterns that result from the interplay of pressure and gravity in the first 400,000 years after the Big Bang,” said Daniel Eisenstein of Harvard University, a DESI co-spokesperson. “We’ll be using these subtle fingerprints to study the expansion history of the universe.”

In other words, DESI is boldly going where no bot has gone before.

More in Home