world's largest digital astronomy camera
(Jacqueline Ramseyer Orrell/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)

DOE’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory Completes World’s Largest Digital Astronomy Camera Ever

After two decades of work, engineers from the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory are celebrating the completion of the world’s largest digital astronomy camera ever.

Slated for installation at the Rubin Observatory in Chile, the Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST) Camera will spend the next 10 years recording the night sky in an effort to help solve astronomical mysteries like the nature of dark energy and dark matter. Researchers also hope that the LSST will answer questions about the changing night sky, the solar system, and the Milky Way galaxy.

“With the completion of the unique LSST Camera at SLAC and its imminent integration with the rest of Rubin Observatory systems in Chile, we will soon start producing the greatest movie of all time and the most informative map of the night sky ever assembled,” said the Director of the Rubin Observatory Construction and University of Washington professor Željko Ivezić.

world's largest digital astronomy camera
SLAC’s LSST Camera team, including Mike Silva seen behind the filter, carefully unpack, examine, test and store the r-band filter, the first of six optic filters that will be part of the completed camera.
(Jacqueline Ramseyer Orrell/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)

World’s Largest Digital Astronomy Camera Has Record-Setting Lens

According to details released by the LSST’s creators, the camera weighs around 3 metric tons. The world’s largest digital astronomy camera also has a front lens that is over 5 feet long. In fact, the engineers from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who helped construct the massive lens say it is the largest such lens ever constructed.

“The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is extremely proud to have had the opportunity to design and oversee the fabrication of the large lenses and optical filters for the LSST Camera, including the largest lens in the world,” said Vincent Riot, a LLNL engineer and the former LSST Camera project manager. “LLNL was able to leverage its expertise in large optics, built over decades of developing the world’s largest laser systems, and is excited to see this unprecedented instrument completed and ready to make its journey to the Rubin Observatory.”

world's largest digital astronomy camera
Using a ceiling crane, the LSST Camera team lines up the L1-L2 lenses with the camera body for installation.
(Jacqueline Ramseyer Orrell/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)

The engineers behind the accomplishment also say they even had to equip the LSST with a second three-foot-wide lens to help the camera “maintain shape and optical clarity” while also helping to seal the vacuum chamber that contains the camera’s massive focal plane.

“That focal plane is made up of 201 individual custom-designed CCD sensors, and it is so flat that it varies by no more than a tenth the width of a human hair,” the SLAC team explains. “The pixels themselves are only ten microns wide.”

To conduct its planned decade of unprecedented research, the LLST boasts an almost impossible level of resolution. According to the designers, the camera’s resolution is so high that it would take hundreds of ultra-high-definition TVs to display just one single image captured by LSST at full size.

world's largest digital astronomy camera
A pinhole projector was placed inside the cryostat assembly to project some of the first images onto the focal plane of the LSST Camera, including this image of the late U.S. astronomer Vera C. Rubin.
(SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)

“Its images are so detailed that it could resolve a golf ball from around 15 miles away while covering a swath of the sky seven times wider than the full moon,” explained SLAC professor and Rubin Observatory Deputy Director and Camera Program Lead Aaron Roodman. “These images with billions of stars and galaxies will help unlock the secrets of the universe.”

World’s Largest Digital Astronomy Camera Headed for the Mountains of Chile

Following its recent completion and successful testing, the telescope will now be packed into crates and shipped to Chile. Once there, it will ascend to the top of the 8,900-foot-high Cerro Pachón in the Chilean Andes. There, the LSST will be placed atop the Simonyi Survey Telescope, where it will conduct its survey of the southern sky.

“More than ever before, expanding our understanding of fundamental physics requires looking farther out into the universe,” said Kathy Turner, program manager for the DOE’s Cosmic Frontier Program. “With the LSST Camera at its core, Rubin Observatory will delve deeper than ever before into the cosmos and help answer some of the hardest, most important questions in physics today.”

world's largest digital astronomy camera
The LSST Camera team successfully installed the cryostat to the camera body on April 8, 2022.
(Jacqueline Ramseyer Orrell/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)

Perhaps the most critical tasks the LSST will undertake involve mapping the positions and measuring the brightness of the objects it sees in the night sky. The world’s largest digital astronomy camera will also scan the skies for signs of weak gravitational lensing, a phenomenon where galaxies closer to ours subtly bend the light of more distant galaxies.

“Weak lensing reveals something about the distribution of mass in the universe and how that’s changed over time,” the LSST team explains, “which will help cosmologists understand how dark energy is driving the expansion of the universe.”

LSST Will Explore the Mysteries of Dark Matter and Dark Energy

The LSST will also be tasked with studying patterns in the distribution of galaxies throughout the cosmos. Scientists say that this data, which will include determining how galaxies have changed their positions over time, could help astrophysicists finally unravel the mysterious nature of dark matter and dark energy.

“There are so many scientists here at SLAC and around the world who will find something valuable in the data this camera will produce,” said Risa Wechsler, a cosmologist who directs the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at SLAC and Stanford University. “This is an exciting time to be studying cosmology.”

The engineers behind the LSST say they received help from a number of contributing organizations. Along with the LLNL team who made the lenses, folks from the Brookhaven National Laboratory built the camera’s digital sensor array. Additional contributions came from the National Institute of Nuclear and Particle Physics at the National Center for Scientific Research (IN2P3/CNRS) in France, which “contributed to sensor and electronics design and built the camera’s filter exchange system. These sensors give the camera the ability to home in on six separate bands of light “from the ultraviolet to infrared.”

world's largest digital astronomy camera

LSST Camera Team Most of the LSST Camera team photographed in the clean room with the finished camera. (Jacqueline Ramseyer Orrell/SLAC National Lab.

Ultimately, the engineers say the 20-year wait was well worth the effort, as the world’s largest digital astronomy camera will offer scientists a treasure trove of unprecedented astronomical data that will aid and inform researchers for generations to come.

“The LSST Camera and Rubin Observatory will open new windows into our universe, yielding deep insights into some of its greatest mysteries while also revealing wonders closer to home,” said SLAC Director John Sarrao. “It’s exciting to see SLAC’s scientific and technical expertise, project leadership, and strong global partnerships come together in such an impactful way. We can’t wait to see what’s next.”

 Christopher Plain is a Science Fiction and Fantasy novelist and Head Science Writer at The Debrief. Follow and connect with him on X, learn about his books at, or email him directly at