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The shipping crate holding the LSST Camera is transported the final 35 kilometers (21.7 miles) up the winding dirt road to the observatory on the summit of Cerro Pachón.
Courtesy of SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

LSST Camera arrives at Rubin Observatory in Chile

The largest camera ever built for astrophysics has completed the long journey from SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California to the summit of Cerro Pachón in Chile.

The 3200-megapixel LSST Camera, the groundbreaking instrument at the core of the NSF-DOE Vera C. Rubin Observatory, has arrived at the observatory site on Cerro Pachón in Chile.

When Rubin begins the Legacy Survey of Space and Time in late 2025, the LSST Camera will take detailed images of the southern hemisphere sky for 10 years, building the most comprehensive timelapse view of our universe we’ve ever seen. “The arrival of the cutting-edge LSST Camera in Chile brings us a huge step closer to science that will address today’s most pivotal questions in astrophysics,” says Kathy Turner, DOE’s program manager for Rubin Observatory.

The LSST Camera—the largest digital camera in the world—was built over two decades in Menlo Park, California, at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, which announced the camera’s completion early in April. This incredibly sensitive camera will soon be installed on the Simonyi Survey Telescope at Rubin Observatory, where it will produce detailed images with a field of view seven times wider than the full moon. 

Using the LSST Camera, Rubin Observatory will fuel advances in many science areas, including exploring the nature of dark matter and dark energy, mapping the Milky Way, surveying our solar system, and studying celestial objects that change in brightness or position. “Getting the camera to the summit was the last major piece in the puzzle,” says Victor Krabbendam, project manager for Rubin Observatory. “With all Rubin’s components physically on site, we’re on the home stretch towards transformative science with the LSST.”

The LSST Camera is funded by the US Department of Energy, Office of Science, and the NSF-DOE Vera C. Rubin Observatory is funded by the US National Science Foundation and the DOE/SC.

The LSST Camera team at SLAC led the process of shipping the car-sized camera from California to Chile. They began by mounting it to a custom shipping frame and wrapping it in plastic electrostatic discharge material to protect it from moisture. Using an overhead crane, the team installed the frame into a 20-foot (about 6-meter) shipping container, modified with insulation on the walls and ceiling—to ensure that the camera wouldn’t overheat—and with hardware to securely clamp the shipping frame directly to the container’s metal floor struts. The camera frame and shipping container were outfitted with data-loggers to monitor temperature, humidity, vibration and accelerations throughout the trip. A GPS tracking system was installed on the container. Throughout the shipping process, the LSST Camera team adhered to a meticulously prepared shipping plan intended to reduce potential risk to the $168 million camera. 

The team had the benefit of a full dress rehearsal in 2021 when they shipped the camera mass-simulator, a steel structure used for testing and balancing the telescope mount. The mass-simulator was equipped with data-loggers so the team would know exactly what conditions it encountered on its journey and could apply this knowledge when planning the trip for the real camera. “Transporting such a delicate piece of equipment across the world involves a lot of risk. With 10 long years of assembly work on the camera, culminating in a 10-hour flight and a winding dirt road up a mountain, it was important to get it right,” says Margaux Lopez, a mechanical engineer at SLAC, who led the planning for the camera shipment. “But because we had the experience and the data from the test shipment, we were extremely confident that we could keep the camera safe.”

The LSST Camera, secure in its container, traveled on an air-ride-equipped transport vehicle to the San Francisco airport on the morning of May 14 for a chartered flight to Chile. There, it joined six other trucks’ worth of containers holding the camera’s filter-exchange system and other ancillary equipment that had traveled the day before. After the camera was carefully loaded on the 747 cargo plane, two LSST Camera team members settled in for the flight. “We were uncertain about the ‘jump seats’ we were promised on board, but they turned out to be plenty comfortable, and having two engineers on the plane was critical for loading and unloading,” says Travis Lange, LSST Camera project manager. “The entire process was also incredibly exciting!”

At 4:10 a.m. on May 15, the plane landed at Arturo Merino Benítez Airport in Santiago, the closest airport to the observatory that could accommodate a cargo plane of its size. The camera container was loaded onto its transport vehicle, one of nine trucks that drove in a slow convoy to the guarded gate at the base of Cerro Pachón, arriving in the early evening. Once the trucks were secured inside the gate, staff members retired to the nearby town of Vicũna for the night.

In the morning, the vehicle carrying the camera began the 21.7-mile (35-kilometer) drive up to the summit, accompanied by pilot and tail cars. Driving slowly and carefully on the winding dirt road, the camera truck reached the summit in about five hours. The remaining trucks drove to the summit over the next two days on a schedule intended to minimize the disruption to other traffic on the mountain.

Upon its arrival at the observatory building, the camera was unloaded immediately into the receiving area on the third level and moved into the observatory’s white room, which offers a controlled environment with no airborne contaminants. There, it was inspected by the Rubin Observatory Commissioning Team and pronounced visibly intact. “Our goal was to make sure the camera not only survived, but arrived in perfect condition,” says Kevin Reil, observatory scientist at Rubin. “Initial indications—including the data collected by the data loggers, accelerometers and shock sensors—suggest we were successful.”  

The LSST Camera is the final major component of Rubin Observatory’s Simonyi Survey Telescope to arrive at the summit, and after several months of testing in the observatory’s white room, the camera will be installed on the telescope along with Rubin’s newly-coated 8.4-meter primary mirror and 3.4-meter secondary mirror. 

Editor's note: A version of this article was originally published as a press release by Rubin Observatory.