Torres del Paine National Park

Chile is set to install the World's largest digital camera, revolutionizing the study of the universe

From observing one star and knowing all the detailed physics of that star, to studying billions of stars at once, that will be the change that the new instrument will bring. 

Source: EMOL
AFP/Edited by T. Fischer, EMOL
January 29, 2024

The World's largest digital camera will be installed in Chile.
Image: NOIRLab
Credit: Rubin Obs/NSF/AURA
 Surrounded by desert mountains and under the blue skies of northern Chile, astronomers at the Vera C. Rubin Observatory hope to revolutionize the study of the universe when they incorporate the world's largest digital camera ever built into a telescope. About the size of a four-person vehicle and weighing 2.8 tons, the sophisticated device will be installed on a telescope under construction and will be able to scan the sky like never before, officials of the U.S.-funded project told AFP.

At a cost of around US$ 800 million, it will begin capturing images in the first half of 2025. Every three days it will make a sweep of the sky, and will repeat the movement over and over again, allowing scientists to deepen their analysis of the universe.

We will go from "studying one star and knowing all the in-depth physics of that star to studying billions of stars at once," says Bruno Dias, president of the Chilean Astronomy Society (Sochias).

"It will be a paradigm shift in astronomy," adds Stuartt Corder, deputy director of NoirLab, the U.S. research center that manages the observatory, located on Cerro Pachón, 560 km north of Santiago and more than 2,500 meters above sea level.

With this project, Chile, which has the cleanest skies on the planet, consolidates its position as a power in astronomical observation, with a third of the most powerful telescopes on the planet installed in its territory, according to Sochias data. 

It is expected that in 10 years, the LSST (Large Synoptic Survey Telescope) will have data on 20 million galaxies, 17 billion stars and six million space objects. 

Scientists will have a renewed catalog of images of the solar system, will also be able to map the Milky Way and advance the study of dark energy and dark matter, which makes up 90% of the universe.

300 TV screens for a photo

The camera will capture 3,200 megapixel photos. An image so large that viewing it would require more than 300 average-sized high-definition televisions together.

The device, which is being manufactured in California, will have three times the capacity of the current most powerful camera, the 870-megapixel Japanese Hyper Suprime-Cam. And it will be six times more powerful than NoirLab's current most powerful camera.

"The existing camera, which is on Cerro Tololo (also in Chile), is 520 megapixels," explains Jacques Sebag, who is in charge of building the telescope that will contain the mega-camera.

This telescope has a mirror with a diameter of 8.4 meters, and to move it overland, several trucks were needed and traffic signs had to be removed to allow it to pass, according to officials.

The 40-centimeter telescope that arrived in Chile more than 60 years ago, when the country's first international observatory was installed on Cerro Tololo in the 1960s, was left far behind.

"That telescope came here on the back of a mule, because there was no road," says Stephen Heathcote, director of the Cerro Tololo observatory, just 20 km from Cerro Pachón.

The capital of Astronomy

The Vera C. Rubin Observatory, named after the American astronomer who discovered dark matter, joins other large observational study centers located in northern Chile.

The natural conditions of the deserts in the north of the country, located between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes, generate the cleanest skies on the planet, thanks to the low cloud cover and dry climate.

Chile is home to telescopes from more than 30 countries, including some of the world's most powerful astronomical instruments, such as the ALMA Observatory, the world's most powerful radio telescope, or the future Extremely Large Telescope, which will observe distances never before reached in 2027.

The Cerro Tololo Observatory has witnessed great discoveries, such as the accelerated expansion of the universe, for which the Americans Saul Perlmutter and Adam Riess and the Australian Brian Schmidt were awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Although other countries such as the United States, Australia, China or Spain have also installed powerful observation devices, "Chile is unbeatable" in the field of astronomy, says the president of Sochias.

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