It’s not often that one has to wipe down, cover up and head into a clean room to check out a camera. For the guys at Gizmodo, though, when visiting the SLAC National Accelerator Lab at Stanford University, it’s a requirement. And it’s easy to understand why. This 3.2 gigapixel camera is destined to sit inside a telescope in the Andean foothills of Chile to survey the skies.
This camera is the largest digital camera ever built, approximately the size of a small car with a “table-sized” focal plane. It’s going to live inside the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) in Chile to capture incredibly detailed images of the night sky. The entire southern hemisphere’s night sky, to be precise, twice a week.
This level of detail allows them to capture somewhere in the region of 10 billion galaxies. Monitoring such a vast area of sky at so high a resolution allows scientists to look for changes in the night sky as stars go supernova and galaxies and other celestial bodies move further away from each other.
It works largely the same as a regular digital camera. An images is projected through a lens and onto a sensor to create an image. But whereas a current model DSLR or mirrorless camera contains a single (usually) CMOS sensor capable of capturing somewhere between 18-50 megapixels, the LSST contains 189 16 megapixel CCD sensors aligned on a perfectly flat plane.
The array of CCD sensors lives inside the camera, each recording a small portion of the whole image. These are cooled to -100°C (-150°F) inside a vacuum to minimise the amount of noise the sensors pick up during each exposure as well as to eliminate dust in the environment.
Of course, a camera that can create 3.2 gigapixel images will create a lot of data. In fact, it’s estimated that the LSST might create up to 15 terabytes of data per night. Imagine trying to edit that in Photoshop.
By providing immediate public access to all the data it obtains, it will provide everyone, the professional and the “just curious” alike, a deep and frequent window on the entire sky.
We still have a but of a wait to see any images, though. Construction of the LSST began in April 2015, and “engineering first light” is expected in 2019. “Science first light” in 2012, and it should go into full operation to begin a ten-year survey in January 2022.
But all the data it creates will be made public as soon as it is captured. So, at some point, you won’t have to imagine how badly Photoshop struggles with the LSST’s images. You’ll be able to see first hand just how quickly your computer starts to choke.