Largest Digital Camera Ever Constructed will be Pointed at the Skies in 2022

The world’s largest-ever digital camera has received the green light to move forward with development. The 3,200-megapixel camera for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) will snap the widest, deepest and fastest views of the night sky ever observed, providing unprecedented details of the Universe. Astronomers say the LSST will help uncover some of the biggest mysteries in astronomy.

The SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory announced this week they have received key “Critical Decision 2” approval from the Department of Energy.

“This important decision endorses the camera fabrication budget that we proposed,” said LSST Director Steven Kahn. “Together with the construction funding we received from the National Science Foundation in August, it is now clear that LSST will have the support it needs to be completed on schedule.”

A rendering of the LSST Camera with a cut away to show the inner workings. Credit: LSST.

Set to begin science operations in 2022, the LSST will create an unprecedented archive of astronomical data that will track billions of remote galaxies, helping researchers study galaxy formation. It will rapidly scan the sky, charting objects that change or move: from exploding supernovae to potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroids and create high resolution time-lapse videos of these objects and a 3-D map of the Universe. It will also help us better understand mysterious dark matter and dark energy, which make up 95 percent of the Universe

The camera itself will be the size of a small car and weigh more than 3 tons. It will be able to take up to 800 panoramic images each night and can cover the sky twice each week. Researchers say it will have the ability to reach faint objects twenty times faster than currently possible over the entire visible sky. Scientists anticipate LSST will generate 6 million gigabytes of data per year.

The unique LSST M1/M3 mirror surfaces being carefully polished. Credit: E. Acosta / LSST Corporation.

The telescope will have an 8.4-meter-diameter primary mirror that has an integrated 5-meter-diameter tertiary mirror. This mirror has already been fabricated at the University of Arizona’s Mirror Lab. The outer ring serves as the first mirror, and is called M1. Another more steeply curved mirror, M3, is carved out of the center. It has a 3-degree field of view.

LSST will be taking digital images of the entire visible southern sky every few nights from atop the Cerro Pachón mountain in Chile.

Cerro Pachon is already home to the Gemini South 8-meter telescope and the SOAR 4.1-meter telescope. This graphic also shows LSST’s future site. Credit: C. Claver, NOAO/LSST

Amateur and armchair astronomers will be happy to know that data from the LSST will be shared publicly and become available quickly via the internet. Researchers involved are planning to involve the public, including students, by using portals like Google Sky or World Wide Telescope, as well as developing research projects that can be done by students in classroom settings, and the public at home and at settings like science museums. They also hope to utilize citizen science projects like Cosmoquest and Galaxy Zoo.

With the latest approval from the DOE, the LSST team can now move forward with the development of the camera. There will be a “Critical Decision 3” review process next summer, which will be the last requirement before actual fabrication of the camera can begin. Components of the camera will be built by an international collaboration of labs and universities.

Sources: SLAC, LSST FAQ

Nancy Atkinson

Nancy has been with Universe Today since 2004. She is the author of a new book on the Apollo program, "Eight Years to the Moon," which shares the stories of 60 engineers and scientists who worked behind the scenes to make landing on the Moon possible. Her first book, "Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos" tells the stories of those who work on NASA's robotic missions to explore the Solar System and beyond.

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