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Space robots to probe universe for galactic secrets

Tue 14 Jun 2016

Scientists in California have unveiled a prototype system of galaxy-hunting robots, designed to discover the secrets of dark matter and create a meticulously detailed map of the universe.

The team of 200 researchers from over 45 global institutions, managed at Berkeley Lab, aims to eventually develop a network of 5,000 space bots which will draw up a 3D map of the universe, plotting galaxies, black holes and stars, among other galactic features.

The scaled-down prototype, named the ProtoDESI, will initially help scientists analyse bright, familiar stars to ensure the robots’ accuracy in tracking movements in space. Testing of the system could begin as soon as next month, at Kitt Peak’s Mayall telescope in Tuscon, Arizona.

The robots are thin, cylindrical machines which measure 25cm in length. They carry two small motors which are used to direct fibre-optic cables at selected objects in the atmosphere to capture their light.

According to Berkeley Lab engineer, Joe Silber, the cables are one of the most sensitive components in the DESI design: ‘If there is too tight of a bend or you stress the fibre, it will degrade its performance.’ He noted that over the lifetime of the final project, the end of the cables will have turned almost 200,000 times.

The bots are controlled by precise software-based commands which program the devices to not bump into each other as they rotate.

‘The main goal of ProtoDESI is to be able to fix fibres on actual objects and hold them there,’ said Parker Fagrelius, manager of the ProtoDESI project.

The final DESI project will create the most detailed 3D map of the universe ever produced and will investigate dark energy – the mysterious force behind the universe’s ever-quickening expansion. It is also expected to draw findings on dark matter, the infant universe, as well as the structure of our own galaxy.

Complete installation of DESI is expected to begin in 2018.

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