Vera Rubin Observatory

The Largest Camera Ever Built Arrives at the Vera C. Rubin Observatory

It’s been 20 years in the making, but a 3200-megapixel camera built especially for astrophysics discoveries has finally arrived at its home. The Legacy of Space and Time (LSST) camera was delivered to the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile in mid-May, 2024.

The camera traveled from its construction lab at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. The technical crew outfitted it with specialized data loggers, monitors, and GPS attached to track the conditions of its trip. Then they put it into a specially built container and the whole assemblage made the trip from San Francisco airport to Santiago on the 14th of May via a chartered flight. Once in Chile, it traveled up to the site for five hours up a 35-kilometer dirt road. It arrived on the 16th, completing a huge step toward opening the Rubin Observatory, according to construction project manager. “Getting the camera to the summit was the last major piece in the puzzle,” he said. “With all Rubin’s components physically on-site, we’re on the home stretch towards transformative science with the LSST.”

This video documents the journey of the LSST Camera from SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California to Rubin Observatory on the summit of Cerro Pachón in Chile. The camera arrived on the summit on 16 May 2024. Credit:RubinObs/NSF/AURA/S. Deppe/O. Bonin, T. Lange, M. Lopez, J. Orrell (SLAC National Lab)

The LSST Camera is the final major component of Rubin Observatory’s Simonyi Survey Telescope to arrive at the summit. It’s about the size of a small car. Inside, its focal plane contains 189 CCD sensors arranged on an array of “rafts”. The sensors deliver a combined 3200-megapixel view.

Now that it has arrived, the camera undergoes several months of testing in the observatory’s white room. After that, it goes on the Simonyi Survey Telescope, with its newly-coated 8.4-meter mirror and 3.4-meter secondary mirror.

About the Vera Rubin Observatory

This unique observatory is named after astronomer Vera C. Rubin. Her work focused on the mysterious “dark matter” that seems to permeate the Universe. Along with her team, she studied dozens of galaxies to understand what was influencing their motions. It turned out to be dark matter. The search for dark matter and its existence throughout the Universe is one of the main goals of the observatory that now bears her name.

Understanding the distribution of dark matter is where the LSST Camera will come in handy. For one thing, it will spend a decade taking images of the sky each night, performing a massive survey that will provide a complete image of the visible sky every 3-4 mights. Each area it images will be about the size of 40 full moons and the survey will take advantage of the 8.4-meter telescope moving quickly between imaging positions. In full operation, the Observatory will deliver a 500-petabyte set of images and data products about the sky.

The complete focal plane of the future LSST Camera is more than 2 feet wide and contains 189 individual sensors that will produce 3,200-megapixel images. Crews at SLAC have now taken the first images with it. (Jacqueline Orrell/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)

Not only will the Rubin Observatory perform this unprecedented survey in very high resolution, but will also track objects that change in brightness—called “transients.” That includes supernovae, variable stars, mergers of dense objects such as neutron stars or black holes, and other quickly changing events and objects. In addition, it will track asteroids and other objects that wander through the Solar System.

The formation and evolution of the Milky Way Galaxy is another research area for telescope users. Rubin should be able to track stellar streams throughout the Galaxy and chart their paths. That information could give precious insight into just how our Galaxy formed and how stars from cannibalized galaxies move through it.

What’s Next for Vera Rubin Observatory and the LSST Camera

Once the LSST Camera got delivered to the Cerro Pachón site, technicians moved it into an immense white room. That’s a controlled environment that protects the instrument while they work to get it ready for installation on the telescope. They inspected the camera and downloaded data about the “ride” from the U.S. to Chile from all the instruments attached to it. “Our goal was to make sure the camera not only survived, but arrived in perfect condition,” said Kevin Reil, Observatory Scientist at Rubin. “Initial indications—including the data collected by the data loggers, accelerometers, and shock sensors—suggest we were successful.”

View of Rubin Observatory at sunset in December 2023. The 8.4-meter telescope at Rubin Observatory, equipped with the highest-resolution digital camera in the world, will take enormous images of the southern hemisphere sky, covering the entire sky every few nights. Rubin will do this over and over for 10 years, creating a timelapse view of the Universe. Image Credit: RubinObs/NSF/AURA/H. Stockebrand

The observatory is still in the final stages of construction. The telescope is in place, and other instruments and infrastructure are being finalized. It should all be ready for “first light” and the beginning of science operations sometime in 2025. Between now and then, more parts of the telescope and its mirrors should be installed, and there will be tests of various other instruments both on and off the sky as scientists get ready to start using Rubin next year. Once observations begin, astronomers using Rubin could discover around 17 billion stars and ~20 billion galaxies in the distant Universe.

For More Information

LSST Camera Arrives at Rubin Observatory in Chile, Paving the Way for Cosmic Exploration
Vera C. Rubin Observatory

Carolyn Collins Petersen

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