When the Vera C. Rubin Observatory begins observations in 2023, its SUV-size camera will be able to capture complete panoramas of the southern sky every few nights. And that requires a new type of camera never seen before.
The imaging sensors for the world’s largest digital camera have captured the first-ever 3,200-megapixel images by teams at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory (originally named the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center) in California
Once this array of sensors is installed in the camera at SLAC and delivered to the Rubin Observatory in Chile, it will contribute to the observatory’s 10-year Legacy Survey of Space and Time.
This survey will serve as a catalog of billions of galaxies and astrophysical objects, essentially creating “the largest astronomical movie of all time” and unlock the mysteries of the universe.
The first 3,200-megapixel images captured using the sensors are so sprawling that they would require 378 4K ultra-high-definition TV screens to showcase just one of them at its full size.
The assembly of the sensors in the camera’s focal plane was completed in January, and the first images were used to test it.
“The focal plane will produce the images for the LSST, so it’s the capable and sensitive eye of the Rubin Observatory,” said Vincent Riot, LSST camera project manager, in a statement. Riot is from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.
The camera’s focal plane, similar to an imaging sensor in a digital camera, includes 189 sensors that provide 16 megapixels each. And it’s more than 2 feet wide, compared to the normal 1.4-inch-wide sensor in digital full-frame cameras.
This makes the sensor large enough to image a part of the sky that is equal to 40 full moons.
The observatory’s capabilities will enable it to spot faint objects 100 million times dimmer than what we can see with the naked eye. It’s designed to map the Milky Way, explore dark energy and dark matter, and survey the solar system.
During the 10-year survey, the camera is expected to image 20 billion galaxies.
“These data will improve our knowledge of how galaxies have evolved over time and will let us test our models of dark matter and dark energy more deeply and precisely than ever,” said Steven Ritz, project scientist for the LSST Camera at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in a statement.
“The observatory will be a wonderful facility for a broad range of science — from detailed studies of our solar system to studies of faraway objects toward the edge of the visible universe.”
Capturing the first images
Before the LSST camera could point its eye to the sky, it had to undergo delicate assembly as well as testing.
The focal plane took six months to assemble. Each grid of nine sensors is called a scientific raft, and 25 rafts had to be fitted into their spots along the grid. The sensors can easily crack if they come in contact with each other, and they only have a tiny gap between rafts — less than five human hairs wide.
And the rafts cost about $3 million each. This explains why the team spent a year preparing before starting to install any of the rafts.
The focal plane itself is inside a…