Stars and galaxies on a black background.
June 12, 2024

Rubin Observatory and Roman Space Telescope get cosmic sneak peek from supercomputers

Researchers have released 10 terabytes of data from the OpenUniverse project, which has created a detailed simulation of the universe astrophysicists can use to help calibrate expectations from two major new telescopes.

Researchers are diving into a synthetic universe to help us better understand the real one. Using supercomputers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, scientists have created nearly 4 million simulated images depicting the cosmos as the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, jointly funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and DOE, and NASA’s Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope will see it. 

Duke University physicist Michael Troxel led the simulation campaign as part of a broader project called OpenUniverse. The team is now releasing a 10-terabyte subset of this data, with the remaining 390 terabytes to follow this fall once they’ve been processed. 

“Using Argonne’s now-retired Theta machine, we accomplished in about nine days what would have taken around 300 years on your laptop,” said Katrin Heitmann, a cosmologist and deputy director of Argonne’s High Energy Physics division who managed the project’s supercomputer time. “The results will shape Roman and Rubin’s future attempts to illuminate dark matter and dark energy while offering other scientists a preview of the types of things they’ll be able to explore using data from the telescopes.”

A Cosmic Dress Rehearsal

For the first time, this simulation factored in the telescopes’ instrument performance, making it the most accurate preview yet of the cosmos as Roman and Rubin will see it once they start observing.

The simulation’s precision is important because scientists will comb through the observatories’ future data in search of tiny features that will help them unravel the biggest mysteries in cosmology. 

Rubin and Roman will both explore dark energy, the mysterious force thought to be accelerating the universe’s expansion. Simulations like OpenUniverse help them understand signatures that each instrument imprints on the images and iron out data processing methods now so they can decipher future data correctly. Then scientists will be able to make big discoveries even from weak signals.

“OpenUniverse lets us calibrate our expectations of what we can discover with these telescopes,” said Jim Chiang, a staff scientist at DOE’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory who helped create the simulations. “It gives us a chance to exercise our processing pipelines, better understand our analysis codes, and accurately interpret the results so we can prepare to use the real data right away once it starts coming in.” 

Then they’ll continue using simulations to explore the physics and instrument effects that could reproduce what the observatories see in the universe. 

Telescopic Teamwork

It took a large and talented team from several organizations to conduct such an immense simulation.

“Few people in the world are skilled enough to run these simulations,” said Alina Kiessling, a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California and the principal investigator of OpenUniverse. “This massive undertaking was only possible thanks to the collaboration between the DOE, Argonne, SLAC, and NASA, which pulled all the right resources and experts together.”

And the project will ramp up further once Roman and Rubin begin observing the universe. 

“We’ll use the observations to make our simulations even more accurate,” Kiessling said. “This will give us greater insight into the evolution of the universe over time and help us better understand the cosmology that ultimately shaped the universe.”

The Rubin and Roman simulations cover the same patch of the sky, totaling about 0.08 square degrees (roughly equivalent to a third of the area of sky covered by a full Moon). The full simulation to be released later this year will span 70 square degrees, about the sky area covered by 350 full Moons.

Overlapping them lets scientists learn how to use the best aspects of each telescope – Rubin’s broader view and Roman’s sharper, deeper vision. The combination will yield better constraints than researchers could glean from either observatory alone. 

“We made phenomenal strides in simplifying these pipelines and making them usable,” Kiessling said. A partnership with Caltech/IPAC’s Infrared Science Archive makes simulated data accessible now so when researchers access real data in the future, they’ll already be accustomed to the tools. “Now we want people to start working with the simulations to see what improvements we can make and prepare to use the future data as effectively as possible.”

OpenUniverse, along with other simulation tools being developed by Roman's Science Operations and Science Support centers, will prepare scientists for the large datasets expected from Roman. The project brings together dozens of experts from NASA's JPL, DOE’s Argonne, IPAC, and several U.S. universities to coordinate with the Roman Project Infrastructure Teams, SLAC, and the Rubin Legacy Survey of Space and Time Dark Energy Science Collaboration. The Theta supercomputer was operated by the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility, a DOE Office of Science user facility.

The Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope is managed at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, with participation by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Caltech/IPAC in Southern California, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, and a science team comprising scientists from various research institutions. The primary industrial partners are BAE Systems, Inc. in Boulder, Colorado; L3Harris Technologies in Rochester, New York; and Teledyne Scientific & Imaging in Thousand Oaks, California.

Rubin Observatory is a joint initiative of the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy (DOE). Its primary mission is to carry out the Legacy Survey of Space and Time, providing an unprecedented data set for scientific research supported by both agencies. Rubin is operated jointly by NSF's NOIRLab and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory (SLAC). NOIRLab is managed for NSF by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) and SLAC is operated for DOE by Stanford University. Additional contributions from a number of international organizations and teams are acknowledged.

This article is based on a release from NASA.

For questions or comments, contact the SLAC Office of Strategic Communications and External Affairs at communications@slac.stanford.edu.


About SLAC

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory explores how the universe works at the biggest, smallest and fastest scales and invents powerful tools used by researchers around the globe. As world leaders in ultrafast science and bold explorers of the physics of the universe, we forge new ground in understanding our origins and building a healthier and more sustainable future. Our discovery and innovation help develop new materials and chemical processes and open unprecedented views of the cosmos and life’s most delicate machinery. Building on more than 60 years of visionary research, we help shape the future by advancing areas such as quantum technology, scientific computing and the development of next-generation accelerators.

SLAC is operated by Stanford University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time.

Dig Deeper

Related stories

News Feature

Vera C. Rubin Observatory will capture the faint light of distant brown dwarfs to help scientists understand the Milky Way’s formation and evolution.

Brown spots surround a spiral galaxy.
News Feature

The largest camera ever built for astrophysics has completed the journey to Cerro Pachón in Chile, where it will soon help unlock the Universe’s...

A semi truck traveling a gravel road approaches two large telescope facilities.
News Feature

Two determined fellows share their thoughts on representation, mentorship and staying true to themselves in STEM.

Annette Mendoza and Damion Tingle
News Feature

Vera C. Rubin Observatory will capture the faint light of distant brown dwarfs to help scientists understand the Milky Way’s formation and evolution.

Brown spots surround a spiral galaxy.
News Feature

The largest camera ever built for astrophysics has completed the journey to Cerro Pachón in Chile, where it will soon help unlock the Universe’s...

A semi truck traveling a gravel road approaches two large telescope facilities.
News Feature

Two determined fellows share their thoughts on representation, mentorship and staying true to themselves in STEM.

Annette Mendoza and Damion Tingle
News Feature

The first reflective coating was applied to Vera C. Rubin Observatory’s 8.4-meter combined primary/tertiary mirror using the observatory’s onsite coating chamber.

A large mirror reflects equipment in the background.
News Feature

Vera C. Rubin Observatory’s stunningly detailed images will illuminate distant stellar streams and their past encounters with dark matter.

An illustration of streams of stars flowing around a spiral galaxy.
Press Release

Once set in place atop a telescope in Chile, the 3,200-megapixel LSST Camera will help researchers better understand dark matter, dark energy and other...

Researchers examine the LSST Camera