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Like most theoretical cosmologists, Joshua Frieman was thrilled when astronomers announced in 1998 that the expansion of the universe appeared to be speeding up, driven by an invisible agent that they called “dark energy.”

Frieman and his fellow theorists imagined two possible causes for the cosmic acceleration: Dark energy could be the quantum jitter of empty space, a “cosmological constant” that continues to accrue as space expands, pushing outward ever more forcefully. Alternately, a yet-undetected force field could pervade the cosmos, one akin to the field that scientists believe powered the exponential expansion of the universe during the Big Bang.

But the scientists also realized that the two options would have nearly identical observational consequences, and either theory could fit the crude measurements to date.

To distinguish between them, Frieman, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago and a senior staff scientist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in nearby Batavia, Ill., co-founded the Dark Energy Survey (DES), a $50 million, 300-person experiment. The centerpiece of the project is the Dark Energy Camera, or DECam, a 570-megapixel, optical and near-infrared CCD detector built at Fermilab and installed on the four-meter Blanco Telescope in Chile two years ago. By observing 300 million galaxies spanning 10 billion light-years, DES aims to track the cosmic acceleration more precisely than ever before in hopes of favoring one hypothesis over the other. Frieman and his team are now reporting their first results.

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