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Nov. 28, 2006, 11:48PMDrilling for 'dark energy'By RICK CASEYCopyright 2006 Houston ChronicleGary Hill worked a packed room at Ouisie's Table on Monday, speaking of "dark energy" with the easy manner of a geologist who is convinced (and convincing) that the oil field investment he's peddling is a sure thing.But Hill's "dark energy" wasn't West Texas crude and he isn't a geologist.He is the British-born and Oxford-educated chief astronomer at the University of Texas McDonald Observatory.And "dark energy" is the hottest topic in astronomy, a vast and mysterious force discovered only a decade ago when scientists used new technology to measure the rate at which gravitational pulls were slowing the expansion of the universe — only to find that the expansion was accelerating.Hill was presenting to the well-heeled group nothing less than the observatory's plans to win a worldwide race to explore the dynamics of dark energy, a project that some think could win a Nobel Prize in science.10,000 galaxies a nightAbout $15.5 million has already been raised for the $33 million project. Of that, $750,000 came from Houston's George Mitchell, developer of The Woodlands, whose foundation provided a grant to develop a prototype of a spectograph especially designed for the project.The instrument is being tested now and McDonald officials say it is passing with flying colors. Once it is refined, 145 copies will be configured around the observatory's Hobby-Eberly Telescope on Mount Locke near Fort Davis.The telescope is already the third largest in the world, and plans call for a $9.7 million upgrade to give it a wider field of view.The combination of the telescope with the array of spectographs will allow astronomers to produce three-dimensional maps of at least 10,000 galaxies on each of 100 scheduled dark nights over a period of 2 1/2 years.Making astronomers pantThe spectographs will measure light to determine the distance and whether the objects that produced the light are moving toward or away from us. The target areas will be previously uncharted parts of the sky with galaxies ranging from 6 billion to 11 billion light-years away.The amount of data gathered will be so huge that $2 million is budgeted just to write the software to analyze it.By measuring the movement patterns of more than 1 million distant galaxies, McDonald astronomers expect to tell a great deal about the dynamics of dark energy.The results will inevitably eliminate most of the theories that have been proposed regarding the force, and perhaps all of them.One possible explanation is that the current theory of gravity is simply wrong, in which case the much-touted dark energy may not exist.This is the sort of issue that makes astronomers breathe hard.Hill said the McDonald project has already attracted a couple of top graduate students and one sought-after post-doctoral researcher.If it is fully funded, he said, it will push the University of Texas to the center of the astronomical stage.Globally, seven massive projects have been proposed to study dark energy, including two with $1 billion price tags and one by the Department of Energy and NASA with a budget of $2 billion.One of Hill's selling points was not only that UT's seven-year project is the least expensive, but it would be finished before all but one of the other six even started gathering data.One reason for the efficiency is that the giant Hobby-Eberly telescope is available and can be relatively inexpensively adapted for the project. (Former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby, after whom the telescope is named to honor his support of higher education, sat near Hill as he spoke Monday).Hill played on Texas chauvinism. With NASA already here and an ambitious astronomy program birthing at Texas A&M, this project out in West Texas would virtually put the state at the center of the universe.He urged the group to press legislators for $10 million in special funding from the state, and clearly hoped some in the group would offer substantial private contributions.To put the $33 million in perspective, consider this: Drayton McLane and the Houston Astros just paid $100 million for a single star.What are a million galaxies worth?You can write to Rick Casey at P.O. Box 4260, Houston, TX 77210, or e-mail him at email@example.com
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