DESI Early Data Release Holds Nearly Two Million Objects

The Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument sits atop the Mayall 4-Meter Telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory.

The Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument sits atop the Mayall 4-Meter Telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. DESI’s early data gathered in 2020 and 2021 is now publicly available. Credit: Marilyn Sargent/Berkeley Lab

The first batch of data from the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument is now available for researchers to mine. Taken during the experiment’s ‘survey validation’ phase, the data include distant galaxies and quasars as well as stars in our own Milky Way. DESI has already observed more galaxies than the combination of any other previous study, and it is just starting. Several Spanish institutions participate in this project: IFAE, ICE-CSIC, IEEC, ICCUB, CIEMAT, IFT/UAM.

Madrid, Barcelona, June 13th, 2023

The universe is big, and it’s getting bigger. To study dark energy, the mysterious force behind the accelerating expansion of our universe, scientists are using the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI) to map more than 40 million galaxies, quasars, and stars. Today, the collaboration publicly released its first batch of data, with nearly 2 million objects for researchers to explore.

The 80-terabyte data set comes from 2,480 exposures taken over six months during the experiment’s ‘survey validation’ phase in 2020 and 2021. In this period between turning the instrument on and beginning the official science run, researchers made sure their plan for using the telescope would meet their science goals – for example, by checking how long it took to observe galaxies of different brightness, and by validating the selection of stars and galaxies to observe.

"It is impressive that, in just 7 months, DESI has measured positions for ten times more objects than all previous cosmic surveys," said Violeta González Pérez, a researcher from the Department of Theoretical Physics at the Autonomous University of Madrid, involved in the generation of computational catalogs of galaxies to help us interpret the data collected by DESI. "The data being made public today will allow us to better understand the nature of dark energy with mathematical tools that had not been possible to use until now. And not only that, with this immense amount of data, we will also be able to explore the early moments of the universe, the mass of neutrinos, the history of our galaxy, and the formation and evolution of galaxies and quasars."

In addition to the early data release, today the collaboration released a set of papers describing DESI’s first measurement of the cosmological distance scale. The papers use the first two months of routine survey data (not included in the early data release) and show DESI’s ability to accomplish its design goals.

DESI uses 5,000 robotic positioners to move optical fibers that capture light from objects millions or billions of light-years away. It is the most powerful multi-object survey spectrograph in the world, able to measure light from more than 100,000 galaxies in one night. That light tells researchers how far away an object is, building a 3D cosmic map.

"During the validation phase of the survey, we visually inspected the obtained spectra to confirm the quality of the observations and their classification into stars, bright galaxies, luminous red galaxies, galaxies with emission lines, and quasars," states Ignasi Pérez i Ràfols, a scientist from the Institute of Cosmos Sciences at the University of Barcelona, who participated in the inspection of the spectra. "We have been able to optimize the classification algorithms and confirm our observation strategy."

As the universe expands, it stretches light’s wavelength, making it redder – a characteristic known as redshift. The further away the galaxy, the bigger the redshift. DESI specializes in collecting redshifts that can then be used to solve some of astrophysics’ biggest puzzles: what dark energy is and how it has changed throughout the universe’s history.

While DESI’s primary goal is understanding dark energy, much of the data can also be used in other astronomical studies. For example, the early data release contains detailed images from some well-known areas of the sky, such as the Hubble Deep Field.

"It is designed to observe regions already explored with other methods," points out César Ramírez Pérez, a predoctoral researcher from the Institute of High Energy Physics at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, involved in the generation of absorption catalogs in quasars. "This will help complement previous analyses, and by publishing the data, we ensure that groups outside the collaboration can access them, expanding their impact."

Two interesting finds have already surfaced: Evidence of a mass migration of stars into the Andromeda galaxy, and incredibly distant quasars, the extremely bright and active supermassive black holes sometimes found at the center of galaxies.

"The DESI observations are much more precise than those of previous surveys, allowing us to observe all types of extragalactic objects, including quasars formed shortly after the Big Bang. The discovery of such rare objects not only constitutes a significant breakthrough in itself but also enables us to study the mystery of supermassive black hole formation," says Malgorzata Siudek, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Space Sciences in Barcelona, who leads the identification and analysis of the physical properties of galaxies hosting active supermassive black holes. "DESI will observe millions of quasars, quadrupling the number of known objects. The discovery of very distant quasars, previously reserved for large telescopes, with a 4-meter instrument, makes us all proud and confirms the excellence of DESI."

Survey validation was also a chance to test the process of transforming raw data from DESI’s ten spectrometers (which split a galaxy’s light into different colors) into useful information.

"The images that come directly from the spectrographs appear as lines in a strange and blurry image. The magic happens in the processing and decoding of the data, which makes them intelligible and usable for scientific analysis," emphasizes Juan Mena Fernández, a predoctoral researcher at CIEMAT. "These data will allow us to study the expansion of the universe and its enigmatic dark sector in a more precise manner."

The DESI early data release is now available to access for free through National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC), operated by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

There is plenty of data yet to come from the experiment. DESI is currently two years into its five-year run and ahead of schedule on its quest to collect more than 40 million redshifts. The survey has already catalogued more than 26 million astronomical objects in its science run, and is adding more than a million per month.

Fast facts about DESI’s early data release:

  • Amount of data: 80TB
  • Exposures taken: 2,480
  • Redshifts collected: 1.2 million extragalactic (galaxies and quasars)
  • Objects in the Milky Way imaged: 496,000
  • Quasars spotted: 90,000
  • Time spent observing: 6 months
  • Size compared to full DESI dataset: 2%

The Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI) collaboration

DESI is funded by the following institutions: the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science, the National Science Foundation of the United States, the Division of Astronomical Sciences under contract with the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, the Science and Technologies Facilities Council of the United Kingdom, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), the National Council for Science and Technology of Mexico, the Ministry of Science, Innovation, and Universities of Spain, and the member institutions of DESI. The scientists of DESI are honored to be allowed to conduct astronomical research at lolkam Du'ag (Kitt Peak, Arizona), a mountain of particular significance to the Tohono O'odham nation.

Participating institutions in DESI include the Center for Energy, Environmental, and Technological Research (CIEMAT), the Institute of Space Sciences (ICE-CSIC), the Institute of High Energy Physics (IFAE), the Institute of Theoretical Physics (IFT) at the Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM) and CSIC, the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia (IAA), the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands (IAC), and the Institute of Cosmos Sciences at the University of Barcelona (ICCUB).

The complete list of participating institutions and more information about DESI can be found at:


More information

Part of the DESI galaxy mapping includes the so-called “1% survey”, which is visualized in this video. Researchers took detailed images in 20 different sky regions, creating a 3-dimensional map of 700,000 objects that covers about 1% of the total volume that DESI will study. With the instrument and project plan validated, DESI's lead mapping is already filling in the gaps in these observations. Video Credit: David Kirkby/DESI Collaboration.


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