DESI project management and engineering team posed for a group photo.

DESI project management and engineering team at Berkeley Lab. (Credit: Berkeley Lab)

-By William Schulz

Nothing succeeds like success, says a familiar proverb, one that surely applies to the new Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI), now operating in southern Arizona, on a five-year mission to create the largest-ever 3D map of the universe.

DESI is an international science collaboration managed by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) with primary funding for construction and operations from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science.

While the DESI project officially got underway in May, a preceding trial run became a stunning debut of its state-of-the-art sky-survey technology. From its base at Kitt Peak National Observatory, DESI has gathered spectra from approximately 4 million galaxies, a record-making start on its overarching mission to survey some 35 million galaxies and 2.4 million quasars.

Now, DOE has recognized the extraordinary efforts of the Berkeley Lab/DESI project team with its prestigious 2020 Project Management Excellence Award.

Another Berkeley Lab facility, the Integrative Genomics Building (IGB), also received a 2020 Project Management Achievement Award.

The awards were presented Oct. 25 by DOE Under Secretary Kathleen Hogan.

“These awards, and the success of these projects, are due to the hard work of many talented people and collaboration with our federal sponsors, which enables us to conduct pioneering research that benefits the nation and world,” said Berkeley Lab Director Mike Witherell.

Project Management Excellence Award

The DESI project team worked with vendors and collaborators – including students from a wide swath of U.S. and foreign universities and laboratories – over the course of nearly a decade to sustain a finely choreographed effort to bring the pioneering sky survey to life, said project director, Berkeley Lab’s Michael Levi.

“This award goes to the whole DESI project team whose dedication and creativity brought this complex experiment to fruition, and we greatly appreciate the fantastic support we received from Berkeley Lab and the program office in DOE’s Office of Science,” said Levi.

According to DOE’s award citation, the $56 million DESI project team “transformed” Kitt Peak’s Mayall Telescope into the “most powerful multi-object spectrograph in existence,” and they did so while “exceeding the design requirements ahead of schedule and under budget.”

The instrument employs new optics that increase the field of view of the telescope including 5,000 robotically controlled optical fibers to gather spectroscopic data from an equal number of objects in the telescope’s field of view. There are six 1-meter-diameter optical lenses, 10 high-throughput spectrographs, 30 cryostats, 500 million sensor pixels, and 200,000 moving parts.

Along with a 3D map of the universe, DESI’s immense trove of data will help astrophysicists better understand the repulsive force associated with “dark energy” that drives the acceleration of the expansion of the universe.

The focal plane is installed to the telescope, with fiber cables routed to the upper ring and down the telescope (Aug, Sep 2019).

The focal plane is installed to the telescope, with fiber cables routed to the upper ring and down the telescope (Aug, Sep 2019). (Credit: Berkeley Lab)

While the DESI focal plane was assembled at Berkeley Lab, Levi said, its precision-machined structure was fabricated at Boston University, its 5,000 fiber positioners and electronics came from the University of Michigan, and Yale University was the source of some 120 fiducial illuminators, to name a few examples.

This broad geographic distribution of work has provided opportunities for a diverse mix of early career scientists and engineers as well as undergraduate and graduate students to participate in a world-leading science endeavor. The project team emphasized mentorship for early career professionals, which provided another boost to diversity, Levi said.

With the project now underway, “We’re getting constant data already,” Levi said. “It’s feeding data to something like 200 graduate students.”

What is more, Levi said, with the considerable expertise that existed among DESI collaborators, project managers offered a “builders award” allowing any researcher who put in significant effort toward construction the right to sign any future DESI science paper.

The project team reduced building and construction costs to DOE, Levi said, in part by obtaining some $19 million worth of “in-kind” hardware from international partners including institutions in the U.K., France, Spain, and Switzerland.

In terms of hardware, a principal component of DESI, Levi explained, is its uniquely designed corrector consisting of six lenses, each about one meter in diameter. Such precision optical systems frequently require lengthy manufacturing timelines, Levi said, and thus might have been an obstacle to on-time completion.

So, in 2013, near the start of the DESI project, Levi approached the Gordon and Betty Moore and Heising-Simons foundations for support to fund acquisition of these longer lead-time components ahead of full project approval by DOE.

“These grants shortened by two years what would have otherwise been a much longer and higher risk DOE-funded construction period,” Levi said.

Vendor management also became critical to managing project timelines and costs, Levi said. By trying to forecast obstacles vendors might confront at the beginning of the project, he said, the team was able to provide support and incentives to keep them on track.

Perhaps the biggest project management challenge came in early March 2020, Levi said, with the burgeoning COVID-19 pandemic. DESI management quickly organized an effort to place the DESI instrument into a “safe mode” until operations could begin again.

Integrative Genomics Building receives Project Management Achievement Award

While Levi and colleagues were taking care of DESI, other Berkeley Lab project managers were putting finishing touches on the Lab’s new Integrative Genomics Building (IGB).

The IGB is home of the Joint Genome Institute, a DOE Office of Science User Facility located at Berkeley Lab, committed to advancing genomics in support of DOE missions related to sustainable energy production and environmental characterization and cleanup. The IGB is also home to the DOE Systems Biology Knowledgebase, or KBase, which enables users to analyze, share, and collaborate using data and tools designed to help build increasingly realistic models for biological function; and the National Microbiome Data Collaborative (NMDC), a community resource for decoding the molecular underpinnings of fundamental biological processes to drive transformational discoveries.

The co-location of JGI, KBase, and NMDC creates a thriving research ecosystem for inspiring innovations, from optimizing the production of sustainable biofuel feedstocks, to developing methods for elucidating plant-microbe interactions regulating the dynamic exchange of nutrients in soil, and predicting the impact of climate change on biogeochemical processes controlling the flux of greenhouse gases.

Among the distinguishing features of the IGB is its energy efficiency, which is 31% better than the ASHRAE standard baseline. The IGB also complied with the guiding principles of high-performance sustainable buildings requirements and achieved U.S. Green Building Council LEED Gold certification.

In addition, according to the IGB project management award citation, project managers oversaw the completion of the building ahead of schedule and on budget in a highly competitive construction environment.

“During the period of design and bidding, the San Francisco Bay Area experienced a construction boom, and became one of the most expensive places to build,” the award citation says. The project team instituted a “value engineering” approach to reduce the scope and costs of the project, bringing it back within budget without sacrificing scientific function.


Founded in 1931 on the belief that the biggest scientific challenges are best addressed by teams, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and its scientists have been recognized with 14 Nobel Prizes. Today, Berkeley Lab researchers develop sustainable energy and environmental solutions, create useful new materials, advance the frontiers of computing, and probe the mysteries of life, matter, and the universe. Scientists from around the world rely on the Lab’s facilities for their own discovery science. Berkeley Lab is a multiprogram national laboratory, managed by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

DOE’s 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. For more information, please visit