For now, Europe’s Euclid spacecraft sits quietly in a sterilized room in southern France, its golden trim glowing under fluorescent light.
But in a few months the space telescope will begin the first mission in history to search for two of the greatest mysteries of the universe: dark matter and dark energy.
Although together they make up 95 percent of the universe, almost nothing is known about either—a gaping hole in scientific understanding that Euclid project manager Giuseppe Racca called a “cosmic embarrassment.”
Aiming to shed light on these dark secrets, the European Space Agency’s mission will map out a 3D map of the universe spanning two billion galaxies across more than a third of the sky.
The third dimension of this map is time – because Euclid’s view will stretch out to 10 billion light-years away, it will provide new insight into how the 13.8 billion-year-old universe has changed.
The two-ton spacecraft, which is 4.7 meters (15 feet) high and 3.5 meters (11 feet) wide, was revealed to the media for the first time this week in a clean room of the company Thales Alenia Space in southeastern France. of Cannes.
Only a few final tests remain before it goes to Cape Canaveral in the United States for a launch scheduled between July 1 and 30 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
Euclid was originally planned for a trip into space on a Russian Soyuz rocket, but last year Moscow withdrew its launchers in response to European sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine, delaying the launch.
Taking a wider view
Euclid will join the James Webb space telescope at a fixed hovering spot about 1.5 million kilometers from Earth called the second Lagrangian Point, where it can permanently hold its solar panel back to the Sun.
The first images are expected to come in quickly when scientific operations begin in October, but for larger discoveries it will likely take months or years for scientists to sift through the “unprecedented amount of data”, he said Racka.
The 1.4 billion euro ($1.5 billion) European mission is planned to last until 2029, although “if nothing strange happens” it could be extended a few more years, Racca told a press conference.
How will Euclid, named after the founder of Ancient Greece in the field of geometry, look at something that cannot be seen? By searching for its absence.
The light coming from billions of years in the past is slightly distorted by the mass of visible and dark matter along the way, a phenomenon known as weak gravitational lensing.
“By subtracting the visible matter, we can calculate the presence of the dark matter in between,” said Racca.
To do this, Euclid has two main instruments, a 1.2-meter (four-foot) diameter telescope and the Near Infrared Spectrometer and Photometer (NISP), which can split infrared wavelengths invisible to the eye.
‘A unique tool’
What sets Euclid apart from other space telescopes is its field of view, which includes an area equivalent to “two full moons”, said David Elbaz, an astrophysicist at the French Atomic Energy Commission.
This wide view will enable Euclid to find massive structures like black holes that the Webb telescope cannot hope to find because its “field of view is too small”, Euclid project scientist Rene Laureijs told AFP.
But Euclid’s accurate survey will be able to point Webb in the right direction for closer inspection, said Laureijs, who has been working on the project since the proposal stage in 2007.
The mission comes amid growing signs that there are some serious inconsistencies in our understanding of how the universe works.
Two very precise measurements give two very different answers to the rate at which the universe is expanding – a problem known as the Hubble tension in which dark energy is thought to play a major role.
And just this week, the Webb telescope spotted six galaxies in the early universe that apparently defy cosmological theory because they are far too massive to have formed so quickly after the Big Bang.
Euclid will be a “unique tool” in seeking answers to such questions, Elbaz said.
© 2023 AFP
Quote: Euclid spacecraft prepares to probe universe’s dark mysteries (2023, February 25) retrieved on February 25, 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-02-euclid-spacecraft-probe-universe-dark.html
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