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U.T. building new telescope to shed light on dark energy

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The 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics was granted to students who discovered the universe is behaving in unexpected ways. Right here in Austin, researchers are building a telescope to figure out exactly what is happening.

According to the current theory, the universe has been expanding since its emergence from "The Big Bang." However, about 10 years ago, researchers discovered that instead of slowing down as they move apart, something is making the galaxies move faster.

"We don't know what it is, but we call it dark energy,” Gary Hill said. “It's something that's pushing back against gravity. Right now, this is really considered one of the biggest problems in all of science, certainly in the physical sciences. The solution to it, when it comes, is going to be really fundamental to our ability to understand the laws of nature."

Scientists and researchers at the University of Texas are building an advanced telescope in North Austin in hopes of shedding some light on the dark matter problem.

The project is called the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment and, when operational, it will offer the widest view of the universe from Earth.

"This is a machine that’s pretty unique in that it's very large and needs very precise movements," Ian Soukup said. "Any small positioning error here on earth results in a large error and losing the object in the sky."

Looking into space is also looking back in time. With this new tool, astronomers hope to see galaxies as they were 10 billion years ago.

"Essentially, we're actually going to make the biggest map of the universe ever made," Hill said. "We will see about a million of these galaxies at this early epoch, 10 billion years ago."

The data will allow scientists to create a three-dimensional model of the universe which they can use to test the theories of dark energy.

"The reality is that it's going to change fundamentally how we view the universe and our place in the universe," Hill said.

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment will be moved to U.T.'s McDonald observatory in West Texas this spring and will be operational in late 2012.

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