Construction Finalized on the Biggest Digital Camera for Astronomy by SLAC

After twenty years of continuous effort, scientists and engineers at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, part of the US Department of Energy, along with their collaborators, have finished the Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST) Camera. This camera, the heart of the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, funded by the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, is set to provide an unparalleled view of our universe with its 3,200-megapixel resolution. Over the next decade, it is expected to produce a vast quantity of data on the southern night sky, which will aid researchers in understanding dark energy, dark matter, and other cosmic phenomena.

The LSST Camera, the largest digital camera ever built for astronomy, is about the size of a small car and weighs around 3,000 kilograms. Its front lens, over 5 feet across, is the largest of its kind ever created. Another lens, 3 feet wide, was specially engineered to maintain its shape and optical clarity while sealing the vacuum chamber that houses the camera’s vast focal plane. This plane is made up of 201 individual custom-designed CCD sensors, and it’s so flat that it varies by no more than a tenth of the width of a human hair.

The camera’s resolution is high enough to require hundreds of ultra-high-definition TVs to display a single image at full size. According to Aaron Roodman, SLAC professor and Rubin Observatory Deputy Director and Camera Program Lead, the detail is so high that it could resolve a golf ball from approximately 15 miles away.

Once the camera is operational, it will map the positions and measure the brightness of a vast number of objects in the night sky. From this data, researchers can infer a wealth of information. For instance, the camera will look for signs of weak gravitational lensing, a phenomenon in which massive galaxies subtly bend the paths light from background galaxies takes to reach us, revealing something about the distribution of mass in the universe.

Beyond galaxy exploration, the same images will help researchers study our own Milky Way galaxy and the many small objects in our solar system. According to Rubin Observatory estimates, the project may increase the number of known objects by a factor of 10, leading to a new understanding of how our solar system formed and could help identify threats from asteroids.

John Sarrao, SLAC Director, hailed the camera as a “tremendous accomplishment” for the lab and its partners. He expressed excitement at the new windows into our universe that the LSST Camera and Rubin Observatory will open, yielding deep insights into some of its greatest mysteries. The partner labs that contributed expertise and technology to the project include Brookhaven National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the National Institute of Nuclear and Particle Physics at the National Center for Scientific Research in France.

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