A. Slosar and the SDSS-III collaboration
A zoomed-in view of a slice of the three-dimensional map of the universe. Red areas have more gas; blue areas have less gas. The black scale bar in the bottom right measures 1 billion light-years.
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updated 5/2/2011 3:47:47 PM ET 2011-05-02T19:47:47

The largest-ever three-dimensional map of the distant universe has been created using the light of the brightest objects in the cosmos.

Since this distant light took eons to reach Earth, the map is essentially a window back in time, providing an unprecedented view of what the universe looked like 11 billion years ago.

Normally, researchers make maps of the universe by looking at galaxies.

"Here, we are looking at intergalactic hydrogen gas, which blocks light," said researcher Anze Slosar, a physicist at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory. "It's like looking at the moon through clouds — you can see the shapes of the clouds by the moonlight that they block."

Mapping the universe
Scientists from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey relied on the light of the brightest objects in the cosmos, quasars — brilliantly luminous beacons powered by giant black holes. As light from a quasar voyages to Earth, it illuminates clouds of intergalactic hydrogen gas that absorb light at specific wavelengths depending on the distances between each quasar and these clouds. This leads to an irregular pattern of quasar light known as the "Lyman-alpha forest."

To make a full three-dimensional map of the universe, the researchers relied on 14,000 quasars. The map reveals a time 11 billion years ago, when the first galaxies were just beginning to come together under the force of gravity to form the first large clusters.

"The most exciting thing for me personally is proving wrong everyone who was telling us that it is never going to work," Slosar told Space.com. The use of the Lyman-alpha forest in creating a 3-D map was unproven, "a large investment of time, 20 percent of a big international project, and it sort of had to work. But we were the first to show that it actually works. So, while we haven't yet discovered anything amazing about the universe itself using this technique, we demonstrated that it does work and that we will very likely discover new things."

These observations came from the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS), the largest of the four projects making up the latest phase of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. When BOSS completes its observations of about 140,000 more quasars by 2014, astronomers can make a map 10 times larger than the one being released today.

"With that much data, we're bound to find things that we never expected," said researcher Patrick Petitjean, a quasar expert at the Institute of Astrophysics of Paris.

Uncovering the mysteries
For instance, the ultimate goal of such maps is to study how the expansion of the universe has changed during its history, which could shed light on the mysterious dark energy that seems to drive the accelerating expansion of the universe.

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"Dark energy is one of the most surprising discoveries in physics in the last 20 years," Slosar noted. "Nobody has a foggiest idea of what it could be. So we study it by studying the expansion history and growth of structure in the universe. To study these we make maps of the universe at different epochs."

By the time BOSS ends, "we will be able to measure how fast the universe was expanding 11 billion years ago with an accuracy of a couple of percent," said researcher Patrick McDonald of Lawrence Berkeley and Brookhaven National Laboratories, who pioneered techniques for measuring the universe with the Lyman-alpha forest and helped design the BOSS quasar survey. "Considering that no one has ever measured the cosmic expansion rate so far back in time, that's a pretty astonishing prospect."

The scientists could, for example, "discover that dark energy actually kicked in 11 billion years ago rather than 7 billion as predicted by (the) simplest model and that would be just mind-blowing," Slosar said. "The potential for discovering anomalies is great."

The scientists detailed their findings May 1 at a meeting of the American Physical Society in Anaheim, Calif.

Follow Space.com contributor Charles Q. Choi on Twitter @cqchoi. Follow Space.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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