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Durham scientists part of new space mission to find dark energy

(24 October 2011)

Professor Carlos Frenk

Scientists at Durham University will be part of a major new space mission to discover the nature of two mysterious substances believed to make up a large part of our Universe.

The Euclid project will aim to uncover the secrets of dark energy and dark matter using one of the largest optical digital cameras ever put into Space.

Researchers from Durham's Institute for Computational Cosmology will join colleagues from eight other UK universities in the project.

They will be making computer simulations which model how structures in the Universe grew, in order to predict what Euclid might see and to help to design and plan the mission.

Current theory suggests that dark energy and dark matter dominate the ordinary matter of stars and planets.

In particular, dark energy has been proposed to explain the observation that, contrary to expectations, the expansion of the Universe seems to be faster now than it was billions of years ago.

Euclid will take an incredibly deep image of the sky, seeing some galaxies as they appeared more than 10 billion years ago, due to their huge distance from us, and will build up the biggest map ever made of the Universe. This map is expected to contain the imprint of the way in which the Universe has expanded, in particular the most recent period of cosmic history when the expansion of the Universe has been speeding up due to the mysterious dark energy. .

Professor Carlos Frenk, Director of the Institute for Computational Cosmology, at Durham University, said: "The discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe came as a shock.

"This forced us to abandon our view of a simple Universe filled just with matter.

"Dark energy is bizarre, we have no idea of what it is, and unravelling its identity ranks as one the great scientific challenges of the 21st Century.

"Euclid will give us the chance to pin down the nature of dark energy and it is exciting that Durham will be part of this mission."

Professor Mark Cropper, of Mullard Space Science Lab, UCL, who is project scientist for the Euclid VIS camera, said: "This camera can take pictures of the sky more than 100 times larger than Hubble can.

"Each VIS frame is the equivalent of nearly 300 HDTV screens, and one arrives every 15 minutes. It will image half of the sky in six years, reaching out to the distant parts of the Universe."

Euclid is one of two major new space missions with significant UK involvement to have been given the green light.

With funding from the UK Space Agency, space scientists and industry partners in the UK are set to benefit from two European Space Agency (ESA) projects - Euclid and Solar Orbiter.

Solar Orbiter is designed to travel closer to our own star than any previous Sun-watching mission. It will use an elliptical orbit to take it up to the Sun's higher latitudes to image, for the first time ever, the polar regions of our star.

The missions are part of ESA's Cosmic Vision programme and were originally selected from more than 50 missions. They will be launched between 2017 and 2019.

Solar Orbiter has now been officially adopted by ESA and will go forward immediately.  Euclid has been selected but has to complete its study phase before it can be fully adopted in June 2012.

Dr David Williams, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, said: "With strong UK involvement in these ambitious projects, we are set to maintain our country's position as a leader in space science within Europe. These exciting missions are a prime example of collaboration between academia and the UK high-tech industry and will not only further our knowledge of space science but could help us unlock some of the greatest mysteries of our Universe."

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