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This observatory will help reveal the shape of the universe


Next year, we He will begin creating our most detailed map yet of the visible sky as the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile begins operations. The information it collects will far exceed previous data sets and is expected to yield major breakthroughs in astrophysics.

The first star chart can be traced back to the Greek astronomer and mathematician Hipparchus around 129 BC. Although there is no record of his map today, the work he did marks the beginning of a long and important tradition. In 1989, the European Space Agency launched a high-resolution parallax-gathering satellite (Hipparcos), penalizing his name. During three years of operation, it was able to measure the brightness, position and motion of more than 110,000 stars in our Milky Way with high accuracy. The European Space Agency’s follow-up mission, Gaia, launched 24 years later, increased that number to 2 billion, but its limited size means it can only look at the universe so far. Next year, the new Earth-based observatory, named after Vera Rubin – the leading astrophysicist of the 20th century – will come into operation, and it will have the ability to see much farther.

This is because the observatory will be equipped with a large mirror – 8.4 meters in diameter – that will help us detect not only objects in our galaxy too faint to be seen by Gaia, but also the faint light that reaches us from galaxies like billions of light-years away. Its large field of view means that it will be able to photograph the entire sky above it every few days, after which it will start all over again. And it will continue to do so for 10 years, creating a series of maps that show the movement of these galaxies in space and time.

This data will help us understand more about dark energy, which is causing the universe to expand at an ever greater rate. It will also be used to examine the nature of dark matter. In the 1970s, it was Robin who provided the first observational evidence that there is much more to the universe than the luminous things we can see. By mapping the position and motion of stars at the outer edges of galaxies, I showed that the speed at which they orbited around the centers of the galaxies was too high to have some extra, unseen material providing the extra gravitational force needed to keep them in orbit. In doing so, she proved the existence of a mysterious substance called dark matter.

Dark matter accounts for about 85 percent of all matter in the universe – in 2022, the observatory named in Robin’s honor will help us learn how this matter affects the formation and evolution of galaxies, and even the shape of the universe itself.

Get more expert predictions for the year ahead. WIRED World 2022 is characterized by intelligence and need-to-know insights drawn from the brightest minds in the WIRED Network. Now available on newsstands, as a digital download, or you can order your copy online.

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