The world's largest digital camera is in Chile and it's a true tech prodigy: here's how it works

In an observatory in Chile, they are preparing the largest digital camera in the world for the field of astronomy: it is the size of a car, weighs more than three tons and has a 3200 MP sensor. It will be operational, if all goes well, in January 2023. And it will be an inexhaustible source of information.


The Vera C. Rubin observatory (in homage to the American astronomer who measured the rotation of stars within a galaxy) is located in Chile, on Cerro Pachón, between Atacama and Valparaíso. At more than 2600 m altitude It has two other observatories as companions. His big boost came when, in 2008, he received a $30 million donation from Charles Simonyi and Bill Gates.

When construction is complete in January 2023, will house a compact telescope with unprecedented functionalities. It won’t be the longest, as they designed it to be able to move quickly from one end of its total route to the other inside a 40m high dome. It has three mirrors with an anastigmatic design that avoids the aberrations that we all experience, more or less, in our cameras: spherical, coma and astigmatism.

Complete Cu Installation

Recreation of how the telescope will look

Its functions will be as follows:

  • Investigation of dark energy and dark matter.
  • Realization of an inventory of the solar system.
  • Exploration of the transient optical sky.
  • Cartography of the Milky Way.

The camera will capture absolutely everything this telescope sees. The project was launched in 2001; the main mirror began to be built in 2007 and the observatory in 2015. The camera is the heart of the system, as it will allow us to collect visible information about the universe around us.

The Vera C. Rubin Observatory’s digital camera

We can’t compare it to all we know. It is a technological prodigy that leaves us speechless. Its importance is such that it could change our idea of ​​the universe because we have rarely been able to study it so well.

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For now, it has three main parts, which were first brought together on May 13, 2022:

  • cryostat: is a device used to maintain low cryogenic temperatures. Inside is the huge 3200 MP sensor made up of 189 16 MP sensors.
  • camera body: we find here the shutter, which seems to be mechanical, the filtering zone and two lenses.
  • Sheath: the space where all the electronic components will be stored, as well as the vacuum systems.
Vera C. Rubin Observatory

The three parts assembled

Assembling these three unique components is the last step they took on May 10, 2022. To move them, they had to use four cranes manned by three mechanical engineers and two mechanical technicians. A feat given the weight and exclusivity of certain components, unique in the world and irreplaceable.

As we can read on the official page of the observatory, almost half of the process is missing:

The team will now work on integrating the power, controls and bleed air systems of the two main assemblies which are now joined together. They will then place the camera assembly back into the camera integration bracket and perform final testing on the camera shutter and filter exchange system. The final step in the integration process will be to mount the L1-L2 lens assembly to the front of the camera. This will mark the completion of the integration process, but the start of a full set of verification testing activities to ensure that the entire camera works as expected.

When completed it will measure 1.65x3m and reach weight of 2,800 kg, which can measure a small SUV. You will be able to record, thanks to the use of 75 cm diameter filters, wavelengths ranging from ultraviolet to infrared.

Vera C. Rubin Observatory

A prototype of the sensor

The CCD sensor has a 64 cm in diameter with 189 sensors of 4096×4097 pixels mounted on 21 independent platforms. To give us an idea, each CCD can capture eight megapixels of data per second, for a total of 3.2 gigapixels every two seconds.

Those of us who like “photographic trash” are struck by the amount of data this huge camera can generate with one of the most powerful telephoto lenses we could dream of, with a brightness f1.2. According to the calculations they have made, the information it will generate each night will be 20 TB. We are talking about 200,000 photographs each night and more than 5.2 million exposures in ten years.

Despite this huge amount of data, the camera software and hardware will allow the team to work from dawn to dusk with a minimal maintenance. From what we can guess, they hope he won’t stop working in ten years.

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We can only wait and enjoy all the images that this unique camera in the world will record every night.

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