Astronomers have unveiled the world’s largest digital camera

The world’s largest digital camera for astronomy is taller than a car, has as many pixels as 266 iPhones and will, over the course of the next 10 years, help researchers study billions of galaxies

Space 12 October 2022

Researchers at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory are nearly done with the LSST Camera, the world's largest digital camera ever built for astronomy. Roughly the size of a small car and weighing in at three tons, the camera features a five-foot wide front lens and a 3,200 megapixel sensor that will be cooled to -100?C to reduce noise. Once complete and in place atop the Vera C. Rubin Observatory's Simonyi Survey Telescope in Chile, the camera will survey the southern night sky for a decade, creating a trove of data that scientists will pore over to better understand some of the universe's biggest mysteries, including the nature of dark energy and dark matter.

The LSST Camera, the world’s largest digital camera

Jacqueline Ramseyer Orrell/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Standing at 1.65 metres tall, the world’s largest digital camera has been unveiled at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California.

At the end of 2024, it will be installed at the Vera C. Rubin Observatory at the summit of Cerro Pachón in Chile. In its home in the Andes mountains, it will catalogue about 20 billion galaxies over the next 10 years as part of a project called the Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST). The dozens of terabytes of data that the LSST Camera will collect every night will advance our knowledge of the universe, helping researchers unpack the nature of mysterious dark matter and better understand how galaxies are formed.

The LSST Camera works like any other digital camera, but it is much bigger. Its 189 sensors take in light emanating from objects like stars and convert it to electrical signals that can be turned into digital images. Each sensor is a square with sides about 42 millimetres long and packs more pixels than a single iPhone 13. In total, the camera has 3.2 gigapixels and will take images with high enough resolution to see a particle of dust on the moon. Its largest lens, with a diameter of 1.57 metres, is the largest lens of its kind that has ever been made.

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LSST Camera project manager Vincent Riot says that the camera’s sensors were extremely expensive to make and any misalignments could easily damage them, so putting them together was like “parking Lamborghinis millimetres apart”.

In 2020, before any lenses or shutters were installed on the camera, SLAC researchers tested the sensors by snapping images of various objects, including a head of Romanesco broccoli, through a pinhole. Now, with all other permanent pieces in place, the camera will be rigorously tested for five months to prevent having to troubleshoot it once it is on top of a mountain, says Riot.

Then it is off to Santiago, Chile, on a chartered Boeing 747 where it will be transferred to a train car and sent to the top of Cerro Pachón, where it will give us a view of the universe like we have never had before.

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Article amended on 13 October 2022

We corrected the size of the sensors, clarified which iPhone the number of pixels compares to and corrected the number of iPhones the camera is equivalent to.

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