Washington, Aug.16 : Cosmic cartographers are starting work on the biggest 3D map of the universe so far. It should reveal an undulating landscape sculpted by the big bang, and might give us a clue to the underlying shape of space and the nature of the "dark energy" that is blowing the universe apart.
The Sloan III project is the latest in a sequence of sky-surveys using a special wide-angle telescope sited in Sunspot, New Mexico.
Since the completion of the Sloan I and II surveys, the telescope's camera and optics have been updated, making it a more sensitive instrument. There has also been a shift in strategy, says Daniel Eisenstein, director of the new project at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
While much of the effort in the earlier surveys was devoted to relatively nearby galaxies, the biggest objective of Sloan III will be to chart the positions of more luminous galaxies out to a distance of about eight billion light years.
With the locations of millions of these galaxies pinpointed on such a large-scale map, the team expects to see a subtle pattern emerging.
They are looking for the relic of a much more ancient pattern, seen in the cosmic microwave background radiation that was emitted 380,000 years after the big bang.
The Sloan III survey will also look closer to home, mapping the Milky Way galaxy and monitoring 10,000 stars for evidence that they host giant planets.