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NCSA processes big data with breakthrough results for Dark Energy Survey

New result rivals precision of cosmic microwave background measurements, supports view that dark matter and dark energy make up most of the cosmos

 New measurements from data processed by the Dark Energy Survey Data Management (DESDM) project at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign verify the theory that 26 percent of the Universe is in the form of mysterious dark matter and that space is filled with an also-unseen dark energy, which is causing the accelerating expansion of the universe and makes up 70 percent of the Universe’s contents. “NCSA recognized many years ago the key role that advanced computing and data management would have in astronomy and is thrilled with the results of this collaboration with campus and our partners at Fermilab and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory,” said NCSA Director, Bill Gropp.

The new results come from data from the first year of observations of the Dark Energy Survey in 2013 and will be released online at These measurements of the amount and distribution of dark matter in the present-day cosmos were made with a precision that, for the first time, rivals that of measurements of the early universe captured by the European Space Agency’s orbiting Planck observatory. The new DES result is close to predictions made from the Planck measurements of the distant past, allowing scientists to see the current structure of the Universe as clearly as they can see its infancy, and understand more about the ways the Universe has evolved over its 14 billion years.

Year One results from Dark Energy Survey

NCSA leads data management for the DES project with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), receiving large volumes of observations over high-speed networks from the telescope in Chile and using the Blue Waters supercomputer and Illinois Campus Cluster Program to review, process and release the data products to the public and scientific community. “These results are a major milestone in observational cosmology,” said Gilbert Holder, theoretical astrophysicist and cosmologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, “The backbone of all of these analyses is the data processing; without a good pipeline for managing these massive amounts of data, none of the science gets done. It is a huge contribution on the part of NCSA, both in terms of managing the data flow but also with processing the data to a size that could be easily shared with their collaborators around the world.” NCSA, along with Fermilab and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory are the founding institutions for the Dark Energy Survey. The DES project is a pathfinder for the next generation of surveys, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST).  “It has been a long, hard road to develop and deploy the DESDM”, said Nigel Sharp, Program Officer at the NSF for both DESDM and the LSST, “but these excellent results make it all worthwhile.”

NCSA co-produced the documentary, Seeing the Beginning of Time, featuring NCSA Research scientist Felipe Menanteau and his colleagues from the Dark Energy Survey as they mine the recesses of deep space searching for light from distant galaxies to learn how Dark Matter has shaped our Universe.

DES is a collaborative effort of more than 400 scientists from 26 institutions in an ongoing five-year effort to map the Southern hemisphere. When completed, DES will map 300 million galaxies and tens of thousands of galaxy clusters.


The National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign provides supercomputing and advanced digital resources for the nation’s science enterprise. At NCSA, University of Illinois faculty, staff, students, and collaborators from around the globe use advanced digital resources to address research grand challenges for the benefit of science and society. NCSA has been advancing one third of the Fortune 50 for more than 30 years by bringing industry, researchers, and students together to solve grand challenges at rapid speed and scale.



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