The world’s largest space camera’s first test subject? Broccoli.

Construction is nearly complete for a camera that will take 3,200-megapixel panoramas of the southern night sky.

The world’s largest space camera’s first test subject? Broccoli.
  • The Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile is about to get the world's biggest camera for astronomy.
  • The images the camera takes contain billions of pixels.
  • It can capture objects 100 million times fainter than the human eye can see.

    • This camera takes colossal digital pictures. It would take 378 4K ultra-high-definition televisions to display just one of them at full size. So what kind of test picture might one take with such a beast? Well, a head of broccoli, of course.

      The world's largest digital camera for astronomy captures 3,200-megapixel images. It's destined to photograph panoramic views of the night sky in unprecedented detail for the Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST) database at the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile, 8,700 feet above sea level atop Cerro Pachón. Right now, people at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory are finishing up its construction. The exquisitely detailed broccoli portrait was taken in January 2020 as a test of the camera's focal plane.

      Everyday produce notwithstanding, project manager Vincent Riot says that, "this is a huge milestone for us. The focal plane will produce the images for the LSST, so it's the capable and sensitive eye of the Rubin Observatory."

      Building a bigger focal plane

      The tech involved in the focal plane is incredibly sophisticated and its assembly is downright harrowing.

      The sensors that capture 16-megapixel images in high-end digital cameras are called charge-coupled devices, or CCDs. (Our phones and tablets instead use CMOS sensors.) The LSST camera contains 189 CCD sensors. The sensors are arranged into 21 squares of nine CCDs each — each square is called a "science raft." The 2-foot-tall, 20-pound rafts are mounted in a grid inside the camera. This all adds up to 3.2 billion pixels, each of which is tiny at 10 microns in size, about a tenth of the width of a human hair.

      As you might expect, assembling such sophisticated hardware is not for the faint of heart. The rafts must be precisely positioned in the grid so that they're separated by a width equivalent to just five human hairs. If they touch they crack, and down the drain goes $3 million per raft. The SLAC team practiced the assembly operation for a year before the six-month assembly process commenced.

      One CCD raft in place, plus a smaller non-imaging raft to its left.

      Credit: SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

      Amazingly detailed images

      The camera will be worth the effort.

      The flatness of its giant focal plane — over 2 feet wide, as opposed to 1.4 inches in a consumer camera — will allow it to capture images of the heavens about 40 moons across. Zoomed in, the team says an image it produces will be so clear it will be like seeing a golf ball from 15 miles away. The camera will also be highly sensitive to dim objects, so it will be able to take pictures of things that are more than 100 million times dimmer than what we can see with our eyes — it's comparable to being able to see a candle from 1,000 miles away. Project scientists Steven Ritz sums it up: "These specifications are just astounding."

      Once assembled, the focal plane was put inside a custom-built cryostat for cooling — the required operating temperature is -150° F.

      Broccoli, say "cheese."

      Broccoli's surface is packed with tiny details, making it a sensible candidate for testing out the focal plane. The camera housing hasn't yet been completed, so the scientists created a pinhole device that projected the broccoli's image onto the focal plane.

      The man in charge of assembling and testing the LSST focal plane is Aaron Roodman, who says that "taking these images is a major accomplishment. With the tight specifications we really pushed the limits of what's possible to take advantage of every square millimeter of the focal plane and maximize the science we can do with it."

      broccoli image captured by LSST camera

      (Click image to explore the image at full resolution.)

      Credit: SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

      Next up for the SLAC team is moving the cryostat/focal plane structure into the actual camera body along with the camera's lens assembly, which is also remarkable — it's the world's largest optical lens. The three-lens array was built by Ball Aerospace and Arizona Optical Systems and (carefully) driven 17 hours from Boulder, Colorado to SLAC 's Menlo Park, New Jersey facility.

      "Nearing completion of the camera is very exciting," says JoAnne Hewett, SLAC's chief research officer. "And we're proud of playing such a central role in building this key component of Rubin Observatory."

      The LSST camera's mission is to take one complete, incredibly detailed panoramic image of the Southern sky per day for 10 years. Adds Hewett, "It's a milestone that brings us a big step closer to exploring fundamental questions about the universe in ways we haven't been able to before."

      This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

      A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

      Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
      Surprising Science
      • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
      • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
      • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

      First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

      Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

      All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

      BepiColombo

      Image source: European Space Agency

      The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

      Into and out of Earth's shadow

      In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

      The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

      In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

      When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

      Magentosphere melody

      The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

      BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

      MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

      Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

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      Photo by Reinhart Julian on Unsplash
      Mind & Brain

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      Image: u/curiouskip, reproduced with kind permission.
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      • Slicing up the country in 10 strips of equal population produces two bizarre maps.
      • Seattle is the biggest city in the emptiest longitudinal band, San Antonio rules the largest north-south slice.
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