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Close-up image of a Romanesco cauliflower is the largest photograph ever taken at 3,200 megapixels 


Scientists have revealed the first 3,200-megapixel digital photos, including a close-up shot of the head of a Romanesco cauliflower.  

The images, taken at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California, are the largest ever taken in a single shot. 

They are so large that it would take 378 4K ultra-high-definition TV screens to display one of them in full size. 

The camera responsible for the images will be the ‘sensitive eye’ of the new Rubin Observatory in Chile, currently under construction and expected to be operational next year.     

Once installed at Rubin Observatory, the camera will produce panoramic images of the complete Southern sky – one panorama every few nights for 10 years.

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One image features a head of Romanesco, a vegetable closely related to broccoli and selected for its very detailed surface structure 

Its data will feed into the Rubin Observatory Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST) – a catalogue of more galaxies than there are living people on Earth and of the motions of countless astrophysical objects. 

Using the LSST Camera, the observatory will create the largest astronomical movie of all time and shed light on some of the biggest mysteries of the universe, including dark matter and dark energy.  

‘This achievement is among the most significant of the entire Rubin Observatory Project,’ said Steven Kahn, SLAC’s director of the observatory.

The complete focal plane of the future LSST Camera is more than two feet wide and contains 189 individual sensors that will produce 3,200-megapixel images. Crews at SLAC have now taken the first images with it


3200 megapixels (3.2 billion pixels) 

189 individual sensors 

2-foot wide focal plane  

Dimensions: About 5.5 foot (1.65m) by 9.8 foot (3m)

Weight: 6200 lbs (2800kg) 

Operational: mid-2021 

‘The completion of the LSST Camera focal plane and its successful tests is a huge victory by the camera team that will enable Rubin Observatory to deliver next-generation astronomical science.’  

The first images taken with the sensors were a test for the camera’s focal plane, the assembly of which was completed at SLAC in January. 

The focal plane on this camera is similar to the imaging sensor of a digital consumer camera or the camera in a smartphone. 

It captures light emitted from or reflected by an object and converts it into electrical signals that are used to produce a digital image. 

However, this focal plane is more than two feet wide and contains 189 individual sensors that produce 3,200-megapixel images.  

Two feet is enormous compared to the 1.4-inch-wide imaging sensor of a full-frame consumer camera and large enough to capture a portion of the sky about the size of 40 full moons, or spot a golf ball in an image from 15 miles away. 

On completion, imaging sensors in the camera should be able to spot objects 100 million times dimmer than those visible to the naked eye – a sensitivity that would let humans see a candle from thousands of miles away.                 

Over the next few months, the LSST Camera team will integrate the remaining camera components, including the lenses, a shutter and a filter exchange system. By mid-2021, the SUV-sized camera will be ready for final testing

The LSST Camera’s focal plane has a surface area large enough to capture a portion of the sky about the size of 40 full moons. Its resolution is so high that you could spot a golf ball from 15 miles away

The sophisticated LSST Camera focal plane also contains 189 individual sensors, or charge-coupled devices (CCDs), each with 16 megapixels – about the same number as the imaging sensors of most modern digital cameras. 

Sets of nine CCDs and their supporting electronics were assembled into square units, called ‘science rafts’.

At SLAC, the camera team inserted 21 of these rafts, plus an additional four speciality rafts not used for imaging, into a grid that holds them in place. 

The four special rafts will be used for camera focusing and synchronising the telescope with Earth’s rotation.

To maximise the imaging area, the gaps between sensors on neighbouring rafts are less than five human hairs wide.  

The imaging sensors easily crack if they touch each other and the rafts are up to $3 million, meaning mistakes during construction would have been costly. 

Individual imaging sensors and supporting electronics of the LSST Camera’s focal plane are packaged into units, called rafts. There are two different types of units: 21 square rafts (centre), each containing nine sensors, will produce the images for Rubin Observatory’s science program. An additional four speciality rafts with only three sensors each will be used for camera focusing and synchronising the telescope with Earth’s rotation

‘The sheer size of the individual camera components is impressive, and so are the sizes of the teams working on them,’ said Tim Bond, head of the LSST Camera Integration and Test team at SLAC.

‘It took a well-choreographed team to complete the focal plane assembly, and absolutely everyone working on it rose to the challenge.’

The focal plane also has to be placed inside a cryostat, where the sensors are cooled down to -150°F – the required operating temperature. 

After several months without lab access due to the coronavirus pandemic, the camera team resumed its work in May with limited capacity.  

They then took the first 3,200-megapixel images of a variety of objects, including a head of Romanesco – a type of broccoli – that was chosen for its very detailed surface structure.    

Another image, of a print of the Flammarion wood engraving originally from 1888 by an unknown artist, depicting humankind’s quest for knowledge of the universe.      

Photo of the Flammarion engraving, often used to invoke the scientific quest for knowledge

Extensive tests are now underway to make sure the focal plane meets the technical requirements needed to support Rubin Observatory’s science program.   

In the next few months, the team will insert the cryostat with the focal plane into the camera body and add the camera’s lenses, including the world’s largest optical lens, a shutter and a filter exchange system for studies of the night sky in different colours. 

By mid-2021, the camera, which will be the size of an SUV, will be ready for final testing before it begins its journey to Chile.

‘Nearing completion of the camera is very exciting, and we’re proud of playing such a central role in building this key component of Rubin Observatory,’ said JoAnne Hewett, SLAC’s chief research officer and associate lab director for fundamental physics. 

‘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.’   

Rubin Observatory will produce the widest images of the universe 

The observatroy will sit atop Cerro Pachón in Chile at nearly 8,700 feet in altitude, where observing conditions are optimal

Vera C. Rubin Observatory, which begun construction in 2015, is an astronomical observatory currently under construction in Chile. 

The goal of the Vera C. Rubin Observatory project is to conduct the 10-year Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST). 

LSST will deliver a 500 petabyte set of images and data products that will address some of the most pressing questions about the structure and evolution of the universe and the objects in it.  

It aims to conduct a deep survey over an enormous area of sky, with a frequency that enables images of every part of the visible sky to be obtained every few nights.

It will continue in this mode for 10 years to achieve ‘astronomical catalogues’ thousands of times larger than have ever previously been compiled.    

It will consist of a 27-foot (8.4-m) mirror, the width of a singles tennis court, a 3200 megapixel camera

The focal plane is large enough to capture a portion of the sky about the size of 40 full moons  

Vera C. Rubin Observatory will generate 20 Terabytes of data every night.

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