Camera trained on dark energy gets photobombed by Comet Lovejoy
The stunning result of a comet streaking across the lens of the 570-megapixel Dark Energy Camera could make backyard astronomers green with envy.
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Usually, the 570-megapixel digital camera known as the Dark Energy Camera spends its time peering out into the heavens trying to help us understand something we can't even see: dark energy. But recently, the super-sensitive camera got photobombed by the flashy green streak of Comet Lovejoy, which was visible in our skies this January.
The comet (also known less poetically as C/2014 Q2) was discovered in 2014 by amateur Australian astronomer Terry Lovejoy using a backyard telescope. When viewed through such optics, Comet Lovejoy appears as a green ball with a wispy tail. Magnified through the super lenses of the DECam, however, the comet looks simply magnificent as a great globe of green trailed by a river of emerald light.
The DECam has 62 digital chips known as charge-coupled devices, which convert light into electrons, and each one gathers light data and converts it to images.
The image above, shared last week by researchers working with DECam, is from a portion of the camera's field of view through which the comet accidentally passed. You can learn more about what DECam sees by visiting the DECam interactive site, which lets you click on each of the 62 CCDs as they peered out at the Fornax constellation in 2012.
The DECam was deployed atop the 4-meter Blanco telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in the Chilean mountains in 2012 and will be operated for a total of five years, helping scientists try to understand the mysterious force known as dark energy that might be responsible for accelerating the expansion of the universe by exhibiting a force opposite to the gravity of ordinary matter.
"Over five years, the DES collaboration will use 525 nights of observation to carry out a high-precision, wide-area survey to record information from 300 million galaxies that are billions of light-years from Earth," says the Dark Energy Survey, the multinational organization responsible for DECam. "The Dark Energy Survey is designed to probe the origin of the accelerating universe and help uncover the nature of dark energy by measuring the 14-billion-year history of cosmic expansion with high precision."
And if a comet just happens to wander by, that seems to please the observers just fine. "It reminds us that before we can look out beyond our galaxy to the far reaches of the universe, we need to watch out for celestial objects that are much closer to home," says the group of researchers known as the Dark Energy Detectives who most recently spent time in the Chilean mountains using DECam to help them unravel the mysteries of the universe.