Scientists built a 3-ton camera with a 5-foot-wide lens to discover hazardous asteroids that NASA can't see

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Scientists built a 3-ton camera with a 5-foot-wide lens to discover hazardous asteroids that NASA can't see
Deputy Project Manager Travis Lange shines a flashlight into the LSST Camera, which has a 5-foot-wide lens.Jacqueline Ramseyer Orrell/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
  • Scientists built the largest digital camera ever, weighing 3 tons with a 5-foot lens, for astronomy.
  • The LSST camera is designed to take thousands of 3,200-megapixel images of the entire southern sky.
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The world's largest digital camera is finally complete in a laboratory in Menlo Park, California.

The SUV-sized Legacy Survey of Space and Time, or LSST, Camera weighs about 6,200 pounds — roughly 3 metric tons — and its front lens is more than 5 feet wide.

Scientists built a 3-ton camera with a 5-foot-wide lens to discover hazardous asteroids that NASA can't see
An LSST camera technician takes a selfie on the inside of the camera.Travis Lange/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

The LSST camera has to be that big to achieve its mission of taking a 10-year digital survey of the entire southern sky, scanning the whole area every few nights, eventually creating the largest astronomical movie ever.

"No one has ever looked at so much of the universe so frequently," Aaron Roodman, the deputy director of Rubin Construction for SLAC and camera-program lead, told Business Insider.

LSST isn't just a fun project to break records, though. Among its breakthrough science goals, the camera can also track down large, city-killer-sized asteroids so that NASA can identify any space rocks that might threaten Earth.

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The camera's heft will also help investigate the mysterious dark energy and dark matter that fills our universe and puzzles scientists.

Scientists and engineers at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory built this leviathan lens over two decades at an approximate cost of $168 million.

Finally, it's complete, ready to ship off to the Rubin Observatory in Chile, high in the Andes mountains. Engineers plan to mount it to the observatory later this year.

Scientists built a 3-ton camera with a 5-foot-wide lens to discover hazardous asteroids that NASA can't see
The camera will sit here atop the Rubin Observatory's Simonyi Survey Telescope, high in the Andes of Chile.Rubin Observatory/National Science Foundation/AURA

A full-sky panorama, but 10 years long

Photos from the LSST camera will contain 3,200 megapixels.

One megapixel is one million pixels. An ultra-high-definition, or 4K, TV can only display about 8 megapixels. To show an image from the LSST camera in its full resolution, you would need hundreds of ultra-HD TVs.

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"Its images are so detailed that it could resolve a golf ball from around 15 miles away while covering a swath of the sky seven times wider than the full moon," Roodman said in a press release.

Scientists built a 3-ton camera with a 5-foot-wide lens to discover hazardous asteroids that NASA can't see
LSST could spot a golf ball on the moon in an image covering this much of the sky. The camera would have to be much closer, though — only 15 miles away.Armando Franca/AP

The LSST is designed to take about 1,000 images each night, stitching them together to make one extremely detailed image of the entire southern sky every few nights. Over 10 years, and tens of thousands of images, it should have what researchers call a 3D movie of the universe.

"This method allows us to observe changes in more than 20 billion galaxies, tracking both their movements and how they change," Travis Lange, the deputy project manager of the SLAC LSST team, said in a video on the project last month.

Scientists built a 3-ton camera with a 5-foot-wide lens to discover hazardous asteroids that NASA can't see
There are thousands of galaxies in this image from the James Webb Space Telescope. Images from LSST will contain billions of galaxies.NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Because of its diligence, the LSST should be able to capture all kinds of cosmic events in real time.

Catching the universe red-handed

Ultra-sensitive space observatories such as the James Webb Space Telescope have scheduled times to point at specific objects and aren't always able to make a last-minute pivot toward emerging supernovas or interstellar visitors passing through our solar system.

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Scientists built a 3-ton camera with a 5-foot-wide lens to discover hazardous asteroids that NASA can't see
The Crab Nebula photographed by NASA's James Webb Space Telescope.NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Tea Temim (Princeton University)

The LSST won't have to pivot at all. If something is happening in the southern sky, this giant camera should spot it as it surveys the whole area.

That's what will allow the new camera to discover asteroids in our galactic neighborhood that may have so far flown undetectedr.

"We'll be able to see things smaller than other telescopes have seen," Roodman told BI. "And since we're surveying so quickly, we really do expect to see a lot of what's out there."

The LSST is also designed to alert astronomers whenever it identifies something new or changing in the sky. That gives astronomers the chance to turn their telescopes to observe new supernovae, black-hole mergers, and other astronomical phenomena in every wavelength of light, gathering the most data ever about these dynamic events.

The survey is also likely to uncover new types of deep-space objects and events, Roodman said.

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Hunting for dark clues

The LSST's ability to track galaxies' changes over a decade will also give scientists fresh insight into how the universe has evolved over time. That's key to understanding dark energy and dark matter.

"Dark energy" is the name scientists have given to the mysterious force that causes the universe to expand ever faster. Dark matter is some type of matter that takes up space and has mass but doesn't seem to interact with light.

Together, dark energy and matter make up most of the universe, and nobody knows what they are. The LSST could help find clues.

"If you look at one galaxy, you can't tell anything. But if you look at hundreds of millions or billions — and we will look at billions of galaxies — you can see patterns across the sky," Roodman said. "You can see the imprint of how matter is distributed in the universe."

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