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3,200 megapixel camera will make interactive 3D map of the universe

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This week, the US Department of Energy issued a key approval for construction of the camera for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), which will take snapshots of the universe with a whopping 3,200 megapixels — or 3.2 gigapixels — of detail. When the telescope goes fully online in 2022, it will take some of the highest resolution pictures of our universe ever produced, and scientists plan to do a lot more with that data than “just” modify theories and produce pretty pictures.

With so much raw information available through the LSST, astronomers can use it look for distant supernovae or local, Earth-threatening asteroids, galactic super-clusters or the effects of dark matter. In fact, it will be used for all these things and more, and in the end its many readings will be put together to form an interactive 3D map of the universe.

The primary mirror that makes this marvel of engineering possible is a whopping 8.4 meters across, with an integrated 5-meter mirror at the center, instantly making it one of the largest optical devices ever created. To get much larger than that it’s necessary to have a segmented mirror made of many smaller units, as in the European Extremely Large Telescope. The three painstakingly constructed mirrors will focus light onto the gigapixel camera, which will be fabricated at California’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory before shipping to the Cerro Pachon mountain observatory in Chile.

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Even more exciting, by taking readings in (astronomically) quick succession the LSST can create crude time-lapse videos of the movement of bodies in the universe. Its ability to take roughly 800 panoramic sky shots per night allows unprecedented insight into the effects of dark energy in particular, as it is theorized to have affected the arrangement of galaxies. Up until now astronomers have mostly had to use math to interpolate between theorized past conditions and static snapshots of modern ones. Dark energy is thought to make up the majority of our universe, and by watching how galaxies and groups of galaxies actually move, astronomers may be able to derive some of its actual, physical properties.

A machine at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory polishes LSST's primary mirror.

A machine at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory polishes LSST’s primary mirror.

You can feel the excitement surrounding the project as it moves through the phases of approval and construction; the official website reports rather breathlessly that anyone with a computer will be able to go “zooming past objects a hundred million times fainter than can be observed with the unaided eye.” In fact, it’s not just the images that will be made public but all the data, in the hope that the crowd will be able to assist in analysis. At the very least, it gives amateurs a chance to get their hands dirty with real astronomical data, contemporary and with all the detail available to a real astronomical researcher.

There’s still a long road ahead for these researchers, who need a further DoE approval before they can begin construction of the camera. They hope to pass this third and final camera hurdle before 2016, to stay on track for telescope construction. With their intent to involve the community, and even existing public astronomical efforts like Cosmoquest, you can be sure the LSST will be one of the best-known telescopes among laymen. What’s amazing is that, despite all the PR, it could end up being equally important for scientists.