The World’s Most Powerful Camera Took 3,200-Megapixel Photos

The 3,200-megapixel, SUV-sized camera will soon sit atop a Chilean mountain ridge and take photos of galaxies.
September 8, 2020, 4:00pm
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Image: LSST project

An array of sensors designed to collect images of far-away galaxies has taken photos of objects on Earth that are 3,200 megapixels, the highest resolution ever. The array will next be integrated into a camera and sent to Chile, where it will collect images of 20 billion galaxies over the next decade.

The project is a collaboration between the US Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and the Vera C. Rubin Observatory’s Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST), a project that aims to compile a massive catalog of galaxy images. The LSST Camera will play a key role in the project’s goals of observing more galaxies than people on Earth and creating the first motion picture of the Universe.

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Like a consumer camera, the array that will comprise the LSST Camera works by converting visible light reflected by objects into electrical signals. What sets the camera apart is its scale and attention to detail: it is able to take photos with approximately 189 times’ the resolution of a 16-megapixel digital camera. 

The photos taken by the LSST Camera array feature a head of romanesco, which was chosen for the detail of its fractal surface, and astronomer Vera Rubin, a nod to the Rubin Observatory’s namesake. 

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To capture these images, the sensors were organized into a grid more than 2 feet wide and placed in a cryostat to cool them to negative 150 degrees. The team at SLAC used a tiny pinhole to project the desired images onto the focal plane of the array.

The photos serve as a test that the sensing array is functioning properly and producing digital images at ultra-high resolutions. By 2021, the full LSST Camera will be assembled and tested once again before being installed atop the Cerro Pachón ridge in Chile, where it will collect images from the southern sky every few nights. 

In a press release, Steven Ritz, project scientist for the LSST Camera at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said that the images collected by the camera will broaden our understanding of galaxies, as well as dark matter and energy.

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“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,” Ritz said. “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.”