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World's largest digital camera completes trip from Stanford lab to Chile observatory

World's largest digital camera makes trek from SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory to Chile
World's largest digital camera makes trek from SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory to Chile 03:37

After 20 years in the making, the world's largest digital camera is now atop Cerro Pachón, home of the Vera C. Rubin Observatory.

And it wasn't easy.

Margaux Lopez on the Stanford Linear Accelerator campus has been working for five years, planning for a single shipping. 

"It's been complicated," she said.

Color-coordinating some 50 crates, carrying camera parts — the camera itself weighs 6,000 pounds and is the size of a family car, but at $168 million, much pricier — meant all hands were on deck for the shipment last week from its clean-room at Stanford.

The trip began by lifting the camera inside a 20-foot container onto a truck that then motored up Highway 280 in the dead of night to SFO. Inside, the camera was bolted to a custom shipping frame and wrapped in plastic electrostatic discharge material to protect it from moisture. 

The frame itself rode on 10-inch wide circular coils of thick, braided stainless steel for protection from potholes on 280 on the ride up to the Observatory peak.

Since its destination is Chile, the camera has to be rugged. Chile, after all, is home to the largest quake ever recorded: a M9.5 off the south coast in 1960.

The team had been through the moving process before, staging a dress rehearsal in 2021. Margaux had been living in Chile for three years to coordinate the tricky handover. 

"I personally am really interested in this project because it really feels to me like a progression in astrophysics and for the sake of curiosity."

First, though, there was a 10 hour flight aboard a cargo 747, with camera and crates packed inside, landing at Santiago at 4:10 a.m. on May 15. 

And the trip was all hush-hush: the political climate being what it is in Chile, project coordinators kept the date a secret, wishing to get from Stanford to the mountaintop on the ten-hour flight with as little fuss and as few people knowing about it as possible.

Once landed, the camera was loaded into its own transport vehicle, and along with nine other trucks, driven to the base of Cerro Pachón. 

"It's at that point though that we turn off of the main highway. And it is a 22-mile dirt road, up to the summit facility. That we will go very, very slow," said Project manager Travis Lange.

They went about four miles an hour, in fact. It took five hours to make the trip and then unload the camera inside the Rubin. 

With the grueling trip over, now begins another lengthy process: examining and fitting the camera. It's a process that'll take about five months.

"In the first year, we're gonna collect more data than every other telescope combined has ever collected in the history of astronomy", said Margaux. "Which is wild. We're more than doubling the amount of knowledge available."

When the Rubin Observatory begins the Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST) in late 2025, the LSST Camera will take detailed images of the southern hemisphere sky for 10 years, building the most comprehensive timelapse view of our Universe we've ever seen: dark matter, dark energy, our solar system, extrasolar systems. 

The sky's the limit.

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