World’s Largest Camera Moves From Broccoli to Dark Matter

A 3,200-megapixel image of a head of Romanesco broccoli. (SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory / Vera C. Rubin Observatory)

(CN) — What does broccoli have to do with mankind’s understanding of dark matter, one of the universe’s greatest mysteries? Stanford University published a 3,200-megapixel picture of Romanesco broccoli on Tuesday, among the first images made to test camera sensors designed to record the night sky.

The Legacy Survey of Space and Time Camera (LSST) is not only the world’s largest camera, but the first device designed to capture 3,200-megapixel images of space.

“The images are so large that it would take 378 4K ultra-high definition TV screens to display one of them in full size, and their resolution is so high that you could see a golf ball from about 15 miles away. These and other properties will soon drive unprecedented astrophysical research,” a Stanford University press release explained.

Once completed next year, the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile will house the camera, as it “explores cosmic mysteries,” capturing complete panoramic images of the full southern sky. Astronomers aim to take one picture every few days over the next decade. After 10 years, researchers estimate they will see some 20 billion galaxies. These frames, researchers hope, will create a kind of movie of space from which they can better understand dark matter and dark energy.

“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,” Ritz added.

The first images testing the camera’s focal plane were taken in January and published Tuesday. Besides the broccoli, the researchers snapped pictures of the team and a plate depicting astronomer Vera Rubin. The focal plane consists of 189 sensors similar to the one in an off the shelf digital camera that captures light and converts it into electrical signals to make a digital picture.

To create the sharpest image possible, the focal plane encompasses 3.2 billion pixels only 10 microns wide.

“At more than 2 feet wide, the focal plane is enormous compared to the 1.4-inch wide imaging sensor of a full-frame consumer camera and large enough to capture a portion of the sky about the size of 40 full Moons,” the press release explained. “The whole telescope is designed in such a way that the imaging sensors will be able to spot objects 100 million times dimmer than those visible to the naked eye — a sensitivity that would let you see a candle from thousands of miles away.”

The coronavirus pandemic halted research earlier this year during which the focal plane was preserved in cryostat at minus 150 degree Fahrenheit, but the team returned to the lab in May, “with limited capacity and following strict social distancing requirements.”

The Department of Energy’s Office of Science funded the LSST Camera construction alongside the National Science Foundation and others.

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