The world’s largest camera, expensive, fragile and built in Menlo Park, makes an epic journey to a South American mountain peak

Staff members give the media a tour of the newly constructed 3,200-megapixel LSST camera, the largest camera ever built, at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, Calif., on Thursday, April 11, 2024. After two decades of operation, the device will soon be packaged and transported to a mountaintop in Chile to help researchers better understand dark matter, dark energy and other mysteries of the universe. (Jane Thaiska/Bay Area News Group)

The world’s largest camera was on its way from its birthplace at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park to a mountain peak half a hemisphere away in the foothills of the Andes.

But there was a problem. And it required an order from Chile’s president, Gabriel Borich, to be resolved.

“It was a very high-stakes operation. This is the future of American astronomy,” said SLAC engineer and camera project manager Travis Lange. “There are literally thousands of people who plan to use the data.”

In addition to its famous linear accelerator, which is used to find the smallest particles in the universe – and now the massive camera – SLAC is known for building large, complex machines that use X-rays, lasers and electron beams to unravel the enigmas of earth and in space.

Most of the monumental journey has gone smoothly for the $168 million instrument, which will provide never-before-seen views of outer space and enable ground-breaking astronomical research from its site at the purpose-built Rubin Observatory atop the Cerro Pachon ridge in Chile.

His slow, pre-dawn journey began May 14 in a shipping container on a flatbed truck that traveled from SLAC up Interstate 280, then down to San Francisco International Airport. Within hours, the container containing the 5½-foot-tall, 10-foot-long, 6,250-pound camera was safely secured to the floor of a chartered 747 cargo plane, along with two additional containers and dozens of crates containing related equipment.

The nearly 11-hour flight to Santiago, Chile also went well, said Lange and fellow SLAC engineer Margot Lopez; the two were tasked with leading the operation of packing and shipping the device to the observatory.

But they did not plan to strike truck drivers blocking highways around Santiago, the nation’s capital, in protests that threatened to throw a huge logistical wrench into the transportation mission.

Recognizing the camera’s importance to science, Chilean Interior Minister Carolina Toja Morales took a call about the blockade from an official from the Association of Universities for the Study of Astronomy and then called Borich, who ordered a police escort to get the camera through .

There were a few hiccups as the convoy of nine camera trucks drove for more than six hours on a 22-mile gravel road to Cerro Pachón at about 8,900 feet above sea level in the foothills of the Andes — notably a loss of traction by the vehicle carrying a camera container – but arrived safely mid-day on May 16.

On Tuesday, Lopez, who has been working on the transportation plan since 2018, said she was “very relieved” and “also proud.” As soon as she learned about the strike and a separate industrial action involving equipment operators at the Santiago airport, she created five different scenarios to deal with the problems.

“Even though there were some problems, we were able to resolve all the things that happened,” Lopez said via video from the observatory in Chile. “Most things went according to plan, which is pretty impressive.”

Vera Rubin Observatory on Cerro Pachon in Chile on Monday, May 20, 2024 (Olivier Bonin/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)
The Vera Rubin Observatory on Cerro Pachón in Chile on Monday, May 20, 2024 (Olivier Bonin/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)

Sending the hugely expensive and important Legacy Survey of Space and Time camera—with its 189 fragile light sensors, five delicate filters, and a variety of complex electronics—by road, air, and then back again put a heavy burden on Lopez and Lange.

“It’s a little bit like sending your kid off to college,” Lange said. “It’s wonderful and terrifying at the same time.”

At Rubin Observatory, the camera will be bolted to the end of a huge telescope, probably in October or November, Lange said. Once installation and setup is complete, it will capture images of 20 billion galaxies that will be stitched together into vast panoramas, providing astronomers with ever-changing views of colliding and exploding stars, asteroids and mysterious interstellar phenomena, including dark energy and dark matter .

Given the value of the instrument, SLAC had kept the transport mission a secret, declining to specify when the camera would depart for the San Francisco airport.

“I like to think there are no bad actors who would sabotage something like this, but it’s not hard for us not to advertise that it’s coming out,” Lange previously said.

Building the camera required a facility with air 1,000 times cleaner than the average indoor space to prevent dust and other materials from landing on the highly sensitive outer lens and degrading its quality or entering the device’s inner workings.

Engineers built a custom-sealed clean room with a 24-foot ceiling, and everyone who entered had to dress head-to-toe in white bunny suits and blue latex gloves, giving daily activities the atmosphere of a crime scene.

Before shipping, the device was wrapped in a giant silver plastic bag and looked “like a burrito,” Lopez said. Since moisture is the tool’s enemy, dozens of bags of moisture-absorbing desiccant, each about the size of a small pillow and weighing several pounds, went into the bag—industrial versions of the small packages that come with many consumer electronics.

The camera was bolted to a 4,000-pound yellow steel frame, then lifted and lowered into a clean steel shipping container. Inside, the frame was fitted with sensors to measure and track impacts on the camera from bumps and jolts – which the post-ride data showed was minimal.

Lange’s main concerns about impact before shipping were the camera’s 189 custom-made silicon sensors, spaced a hair’s breadth apart and costing $150,000 each.

“It doesn’t take much movement to go that distance,” Lange said earlier. “If they touch, they break. It would be pretty bad.”

Earlier, to ensure that the transport device could keep the camera safe during its journey to Chile, a dummy version of the device, heavily laden with black iron gymnastics plates and connected to impact sensors, was loaded onto a truck and driven across the Gulf.

“We sent the driver on an eight-hour drive and said, ‘Find all the worst roads you can. Hit 101. Hit 880,” Lange said. “We registered the shocks during this process.”

Then they did a much longer test: by truck to Miami, then by plane to Chile and to the observatory site and back to Menlo Park.

The camera now waits in its new clean room on the third level of the eight-level observatory. On installation day, the instrument will travel in a giant five-level elevator to the facility’s dome, and technicians will use 108 large, high-strength bolts to attach it to the top of the telescope.

Five months of testing followed. If all goes well, the first photons of light will enter the chamber in the spring.

The camera and telescope, Lange said, “will revolutionize astronomy.”

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