Technicians put the finishing touches on the world’s largest digital camera at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. The camera will be sent to Chile and installed on a telescope in the Andes.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The world’s largest digital camera is almost complete. Scientists expect exciting discoveries once the 3.2 billion pixel camera is paired with their telescope. NPR’s science correspondent Joe Palca recently visited the lab where the camera was built.
JOE PALCA, BYLINE: The camera is being built at the Department of Energy-funded SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Palo Alto, California. This camera is huge. It weighs three tons and is two stories high. When I visited him earlier this month he was lying horizontally on a large steel platform.
AARON ROODMAN: The lens cover is still on, so we can’t look at the end of business.
PALCA: Aaron Roodman is the Camera Program Manager. We are in a high-ceilinged clean room and wear Tyvek hoods, coveralls and booties, and latex gloves to avoid contamination of equipment on camera. Sitting on its side, the camera body looks a bit like a jet engine to me.
ROODMAN: So you want to go to the – shall we go to the platform to take a closer look?
PALCA: We climb the half-dozen metal steps to the platform. We are now only a few centimeters from the camera body – so close that I could touch it. Roodman says not.
ROODMAN: It’s okay if you did, but let’s not try.
PALCA: Oh, okay.
ROODMAN: Yes. let’s not…
PALCA: You know, every kid wants to touch it.
ROODMAN: I know. Let’s try not to touch it. I think nothing would happen if you did…
ROODMAN: …But just good practice not to.
PALCA: Roodman’s caution is understandable. If I were to spend $168 million on a camera, I wouldn’t want people messing with it either. And there is nothing that compares to this camera. There are custom lenses, filters, bespoke electronics, a giant shutter and special cooling to keep gear cool, all wrapped into the cylindrical camera body.
ROODMAN: It’s easy in this configuration – it just looks stuffed, but seeing it all together is awesome.
PALCA: Also unique is the Vera Rubin Observatory in Chile where the camera is pointed. Its telescope is designed to see a large portion of the sky at a time, so it takes a huge camera to capture the images. The camera is said to generate 20 terabytes of data every night.
ROODMAN: The plan at the moment is to send the camera to Chile in April.
PALCA: This should be a time of high spirits for the people working on this project. The camera is almost ready. The telescope is also almost complete and Roodman and his colleagues are quite optimistic. But there’s one problem nobody thought of when the telescope was conceived — communications satellites, thousands already in orbit, with many more to come. They are usually invisible to the naked eye. But for the telescopic camera, they are bright objects.
ROODMAN: They will range from moderate to major annoyance. It’s not a good development for us at all.
PALCA: You can write a computer program that digitally eliminates the satellites. But because the Vera Rubin telescope sees so much of the sky at once, and there are so many satellites, it will be difficult to remove them all. Tony Tyson is chief scientist at the new observatory. He says it’s designed to find what Tyson calls things that go around in the night – objects that aren’t there one night but show up a day or so later. This can be exploding stars or star collisions or something completely new to science. The satellites could make this a problem. Tyson says when the telescope sees something unusual like this, it will alert other telescopes to look at that part of the sky so everything that happened during the night can be examined in depth.
TONY TYSON: I think we’re going to have a very large background of false events – false warnings. That worries me the most.
PALCA: Things that the software misidentifies as new, but are actually just a reflection from a satellite. One wrong tip will send other telescopes on a wild goose chase. Tyson says some companies like Starlink have agreed to take action to mitigate the problem, such as: B. the use of less reflective material in their satellites. Other companies were not so accommodating. Tyson says they won’t know for sure how troublesome these satellites are until they install the camera in the telescope and start looking at the sky. Joe Palca, NPR News.
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NPR transcripts are prepared by an NPR contractor on a rush schedule. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR programming is the audio recording.
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