This Camera Will Open Up the Galaxy for Us

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(rendering of the LSST from Brookhaven National Laboratory)

In 1998, scientists found the universe was expanding at a faster rate than it was before and they didn't know why until they discovered dark energy.  

Why does this matter? "All the existing telescopes with cameras were built before the discovery of dark energy," said Paul O'Connor, a senior scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory. If you don't know that it exists then you don't know how to look for it. 

Cut to today, and that's finally changed, as scientists from dozens of institutions in 23 countries have been working together to create the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), a giant telescope with a digital camera that has the power to capture the light of several billion faint galaxies millions of light years away. They expect the LSST, when it's finished being assembled atop a mountain in Chile, to map the entire sky and find out where all that dark matter has been hiding.

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How is the LSST different than what's already out there? Humans have been taking pictures for over a century now and the only big change has been technology. It's all really about capturing light, whether it's on cellulose like film or in pixels like in digital. For years the answer has always been bigger is better. IMAX 70mm film has always been able to capture more light and therefore get a better resolution than 35 or 16mm. In digital it's about a combination of sensor size megapixels. 

(Paul O'Connor holding one of the camera's 3,200 megapixels sensors)

The really interesting thing about the LSST is that it's going to have a limited view of our solar system and beyond. Instead of taking one giant picture where you can see everything in the night sky, the camera will only have a field of view that's ten square degrees, or the equivalent of holding a dime up to the night sky. Even with such a limited view, "every photograph we take of that size of the sky gets us another million galaxies," says O'Connor. 

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(up close rendering of the LSST)

The Brookhaven National Laboratory states: "Outfitted with world's largest-ever digital camera--including a 3,200 megapixel sensor being developed at Brookhaven Lab--the LSST will capture light from stars 100 million times dimmer than the dimmest star visible to the naked eye and with a wide-angle view, so the entire night sky can be surveyed far more quickly than what's possible with other advanced telescopes today"

So, how will that help them discover dark energy? When the LSST is finally operational in 2020 it's going to spend ten years capturing dime sized sections of the night sky with its massive 3,200-megapixel sensor. Stitch all those images together and now you have a high-resolution image of the universe... one you can punch in and explore like you're a Bladerunner (except you're searching for dark energy instead of replicants).