The Dark Energy Camera took countless photos. Here are 15 of the most spectacular.

The dark energy camera took more than a million exposures of the southern sky while perched in the Chilean Andes. About 2.5 billion astronomical objects, including galaxies and galaxy clusters, stars, comets, asteroids, dwarf planets and supernovae, were captured in the images.

The remarkable 570-megapixel Dark Energy camera, first created in Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory of the US Department of Energy for the Dark Energy Investigation, has been observing the stars for ten years now. The international DES cooperation uses data from deep space to study dark energy, a phenomenon that is accelerating the expansion of space.

The Dark Energy Survey, whose scientists are currently analyzing data from 2013 to 2019, is not the only project to benefit from this powerful equipment. The camera was also used by other research teams to conduct additional astronomical surveys and observations. Here are some of the stunning images captured by the Dark Energy camera.

Credit: CTIO/NOIRLab/DOE/NSF/AURA; Acknowledgements: M. Soraisam (University of Illinois); Image processing: Travis Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage), Mahdi Zamani and Davide de Martin

The Southern Pinwheel Galaxy (also known as Messier 83 or NGC 5236) is about 15 million light-years from Earth. It took DECam over 11 hours of exposure time to capture this image. The camera is mounted on the Víctor M. Blanco 4-meter telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, a program of NSF’s NOIRLab.

Dark Energy Survey 10 deep fields

Credit: Dark Energy Survey/DOE/FNAL/DECam/CTIO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA; Acknowledgments: TA Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage/NSF’s NOIRLab), M. Zamani (NSF’s NOIRLab) and D. de Martin (NSF’s NOIRLab)

The Dark Energy Survey has imaged an eighth of the sky, capturing light from galaxies up to 8 billion light-years away. The survey repeatedly imaged 10 “deep fields” like the one shown here. By returning to certain sections of the sky, scientists are able to construct and collect different wavelengths of light to image incredibly distant galaxies and faint objects. These deep fields can be used to calibrate the rest of the DES data and to hunt supernovae.

Dark Energy Survey Comet Lovejoy

Credit: Marty Murphy, Nikolay Kuropatkin, Huan Lin and Brian Yanny; Dark Energy Investigation

While the Dark Energy Survey typically looks at objects millions or billions of light-years away, sometimes closer objects appear. In 2014, the Dark Energy Survey spotted Comet Lovejoy traveling about 81 million miles from Earth. Each rectangle in the image represents one of the 62 CCDs used by DECam, each of which is a sophisticated sensor designed to capture light from distant galaxies.

Spiral galaxy NGC 1566

Credit: Dark Energy Survey

The spiral galaxy NGC 1566, sometimes called the Spanish Dancer, lies about 69 million light-years from Earth. Each photo in DECam is the result of choices made during image processing. The camera uses five filters that each record a different wavelength of light (between 400 and 1080 nanometers) and can be combined to create full color images.

DECam Photo Milky Way

Credit: CTIO/NOIRLab/DOE/NSF/AURA/STScI, W. Clarkson (UM-Dearborn), C. Johnson (STScI) and M. Rich (UCLA)

This DECam photo, taken looking towards the center of our Milky Way galaxy, covers an area about twice as wide as the full moon and contains more than 180,000 stars. You can also see a larger version encompassing more of the Milky Way bulge. Although beautiful, the stars and dust of the Milky Way block out distant galaxies needed to study dark energy. So the Dark Energy Survey generally points the telescope in the opposite direction, away from the plane of our galaxy.

Spiral Galaxy NGC 681

Credit: Erin Sheldon, Dark Energy Investigation

From our position on Earth, we see the spiral galaxy NGC 681 from the side (or profile). The galaxy, also known as the Little Sombrero Galaxy, is about 66.5 million light-years away. To keep images of distant objects as sharp as possible, DECam uses a mechanism called Hexapod, which uses six pneumatic pistons to align the camera’s many optical elements between exposures. In addition to the five light filters, DECam also has five optical lenses, the largest of which is over 3 feet wide and weighs 388 pounds.

Small Magellanic Cloud

Credit: CTIO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/SMASH/D. Nidever (Montana State University); Acknowledgements: Image processing: Travis Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage), Mahdi Zamani and Davide de Martin

This image shows a wide angle view of the Small Magellanic Cloud. The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds are dwarf satellite galaxies of the Milky Way, and their proximity makes them a valuable place to study star formation. The Dark Energy Camera captured deep looks at our galactic neighbors for the Magellan Stellar History Investigation or SMASH.

Spiral galaxy NGC 1515

Credit: Dark Energy Survey/DOE/FNAL/DECam/CTIO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA; Image processing: TA Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage/NSF’s NOIRLab), J. Miller (Gemini Observatory/NSF’s NOIRLab), M. Zamani and D. de Martin (NSF’s NOIRLab)

The large galaxy in the center of this image is NGC 1515, a spiral galaxy with several neighboring galaxies in the Dorado Group. By examining the large-scale structure of the universe, astronomers discover that galaxies are not randomly distributed, but rather clustered together, forming a kind of cosmic web. The Dark Energy Survey has produced some of the most accurate maps of the structure of the universe and its evolution over time.

Dark Energy Investigation NGC 288

Credit: Robert Gruendl, Dark Energy Survey

NGC 288 is a globular star cluster located approximately 28,700 light-years from Earth. These stars are bound together by gravity and are concentrated towards the center of the sphere. Globular clusters are an interesting way to study the evolution of stars and our own Milky Way, although the Dark Energy Survey examines distant galaxies and galaxy clusters to better understand dark energy.

Centaur A Galaxy

Credit: CTIO/NOIRLab/DOE/NSF/AURA; Acknowledgments: PI: M. Soraisam (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign/NSF’s NOIRLab); Image processing: TA Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage/NSF’s NOIRLab), M. Zamani (NSF’s NOIRLab) and D. de Martin (NSF’s NOIRLab)

This Dark Energy Camera image shows light from Centaurus A, a galaxy more than 12 million light-years away. It is partially obscured by dark bands of dust caused by the collision of two galaxies.

Irregular dwarf galaxy IC 1613

Credit: DES/DOE/Fermilab/NCSA and CTIO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA; Acknowledgements: Image processing: DES, Jen Miller (NSF Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab), Travis Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage), Mahdi Zamani and Davide de Martin

The Dark Energy Survey discovered several new dwarf galaxies and used the data to limit the potential size of dark matter particles. This irregular dwarf galaxy, IC 1613, is about 2.4 million light-years away and contains about 100 million stars. Dwarf galaxies are considered small and faint by astronomical standards; for comparison, our galaxy, the Milky Way, is estimated to contain between 100 and 400 billion stars.

Helix Nebula (NGC 7293)

Credit: Rob Morgan, Dark Energy Survey

The Helix Nebula (NGC 7293) is a planetary nebula located approximately 650 light-years from Earth. It is shown here spanning several of the Dark Energy Camera’s CCDs. Planetary nebulae, so named because they looked round and sharp like planets, are actually remnants of stars. Here, a dying star has ejected its outer layers, leaving a small white dwarf surrounded by gas. Billions of years from now, our own sun will meet the same fate.

Galaxy Sculptor

Credit: Dark Energy Survey

The Spiral Sculptor Galaxy is about 11 million light-years away. It is one of more than 500 million galaxies imaged by the Dark Energy Survey over 5,000 square degrees of sky. To optimize the observations, DES used automated software to point the camera and capture the exposures. The software could take into account what part of the sky was overhead, weather conditions, moonlight, and recently photographed areas.

Elliptical galaxy NGC 474

Credit: DES/DOE/Fermilab/NCSA & CTIO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA; Acknowledgements: Image processing: DES, Jen Miller (NSF Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab), Travis Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage), Mahdi Zamani and Davide de Martin

The wispy shells around the elliptical galaxy NGC 474 (center) are actually hundreds of millions of stars. To the left is a spiral galaxy, and in the background are thousands of other, more distant galaxies — visible in this zoomable version. DECam images contain large amounts of information; each is about one gigabyte in size. The Dark Energy Survey would take a few hundred images per session, yielding up to 2.5 terabytes of data in a single night.

Barred spiral galaxy NGC 1365

Credit: Dark Energy Survey

The Dark Energy Camera captured the barred spiral galaxy NGC 1365 in its very first photographs in 2012. The galaxy lies in the Fornax cluster, about 60 million light-years from Earth. This close-up comes from the camera’s much wider field of view, which you can explore in the interactive DECam viewer.

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