A HUGE telescope instrument which will be used to create the most detailed 3D map of the universe ever made has aimed its 5,000 fibre-optic eyes at the night sky for the first time.

Researchers from Durham University are part of a select group of UK academics who are part of the international project to provide precise measurements of the universe’s expansion rate.

Known as the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI), it has been attached to the four-metre Mayall Telescope at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, in the US.

A team of researchers from Durham, led by Dr Luke Tyas, were involved in developing the fibre-optic system, which can split light to map their distance from Earth and gauge how much the universe expanded as this light travelled to Earth.

In ideal conditions DESI can cycle through a new set of 5,000 galaxies every 20 minutes.

DESI team member Professor Carlos Frenk, from Durham University, said: “The DESI project epitomises the best of modern science. It is designed to answer a fascinating question about the fundamental fabric of our universe: what is causing the cosmic expansion to speed up?

“It will collect 10 times more data on galaxies, quasars and stars in the Milky Way than humans have collected to date, stretching back to the early phases of our universe. Bringing together scientists from 13 countries, DESI shows how people from across the globe can come together to tackle key scientific questions.”

The installation of the instrument is almost complete and final testing has begun, with DESI capturing its first images of galaxies up to 11 billion light years away.

When formal observations begin in 2020, it will look back in time at the early universe to create the most detailed 3D map of the universe ever created.

The DESI collaboration has participation from nearly 500 researchers at 75 institutions in 13 countries, including UK contributors from Durham, Portsmouth, UCL, Edinburgh, St Andrews, Cambridge and Warwick.

The team in Durham, working with University College London (UCL), was given £2.4m to facilitate the development of DESI instrumentation development.

Professor Ofer Lahav from UCL, the chair of the DESI UK consortium of seven universities, said: “The ability of DESI to capture the spectra of 5,000 different galaxies simultaneously is about 10 times more than previously achieved.

“By looking back in time by up to about 11 billion years, DESI will expose secrets of the universe’s infancy and early development. This new information will help us better understand the physical processes driving the accelerating expansion of the universe, one of the key unsolved questions in physics. It will also teach us about the nature of dark matter, including finding the mass of the illusive neutrinos.”

The optical corrector, led by UCL, allows the 5,000 ‘eyes’ of fibre-optic cable to be arranged over eight square degrees. The design includes four large lenses and two smaller ones, which expand the telescope’s viewing window by about 16 times.