In an immaculately clean workshop at Brookhaven National Laboratory, researchers are building an eye for a giant digital camera that will someday photograph far-off galaxies and, scientists hope, unlock the universe's deepest secrets.
When completed, the 3.2 billion-pixel camera will sit inside a telescope in the Andes Mountains. Every night for a decade it will shoot panoramic photos at rapid-fire speed, capturing the entire sky and allowing scientists to watch exploding supernovas, gamma-ray bursts and every other step in the celestial dance.
At the heart of it all will be Brookhaven's complex array of sensors, converting the far-flung slivers of light into digital images.
"This will be the largest digital camera ever made," said Steven Kahn, a Stanford University physicist who is directing the project. "It will really bring the universe home in a way that's never been done before."
The $641 million project, called the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, or LSST, received its final approval in September from the U.S. Department of Energy. Once it's operational in 2022, scientists hope it will allow them to gather an unprecedented amount of data about the universe, allowing them to learn how galaxies formed, understand the mysterious force known as dark energy and track asteroids that may be on a collision course with Earth.
The effort is one of several ambitious new telescope projects underway in the United States, Europe and South America as scientists try to peer deeper into space and push the frontiers of astronomy. What will make the LSST different from other stargazing behemoths, researchers say, is an ability to capture sweeping Imax-style images, amassing a database of 37 billion stars and galaxies and essentially create a movie of the cosmos.
"For the first time, we will be able to see all the main . . . stars in the galaxy," said Paul O'Connor, a senior scientist at Brookhaven who has been working on the project since 2002.
On a mountain in Chile
The 350-ton telescope will sit atop the western slope of Cerro Pachón, an 8,900-foot peak in Chile overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It will be housed inside a 12-story facility, topped by a dome with a retractable roof.
Inside, a 27-foot-wide circular mirror will act like a giant bucket to catch light from above. The images from that concave disc -- which will be as wide as a tennis court -- will be reflected off smaller mirrors, sharpening the distant points of light into focus before hitting the camera.
The project, based in Tucson, near the University of Arizona, pulls together more than 500 scientists, from across the United States, France and Chile and elsewhere. It is being funded by the National Science Foundation, the Energy Department and private donations from Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Google, software pioneer Charles Simonyi, who oversaw the development of Microsoft Office, and others.
Scientists at the University of Arizona built the giant mirror. A team from the University of Washington in Seattle, Princeton University and elsewhere is heading the data management. And the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University is overseeing construction of the camera, which will be about the size of an SUV.
Brookhaven's piece is at the heart of the camera and will record the images. The apparatus is an array of silicon sensors, called charge-coupled devices, which are found inside any digital camera. The 2-by-2-inch chips that Brookhaven is making, however, are far more powerful, with 16 million pixels each. (That's twice as many as the iPhone 6.) And the camera will have 189 of the sensors, totaling 3.2 billion pixels.
Tightly packed chips
The trick, however, is those chips must be packed tightly together to capture clear images. Imagine creating one large seamless picture by piecing together individual shots taken by dozens of cameras arrayed on a grid. If the cameras aren't arranged just so, there could be gaps in the big picture.
That problem is multiplied exponentially when shooting subjects light-years from Earth. To avoid missing any glimmer of detail, the scientists must configure the chips with breathtaking precision.
"The gap between one sensor and its neighbor needs to be about the diameter of two human hairs," O'Connor said.
Plus, each sensor must be wired to a complex system of electronics to record and download the images at breakneck speed. Everything must be free of dust and other debris that could spoil the images. And it all must be packed into a 99-gallon barrel-shaped container, which will be cooled to 148 degrees below zero to keep electrons from bouncing around and blurring the images.
Brookhaven is building the apparatus in 21 sections and plans to deliver the first one to Stanford next year. The Long Island team plans to deliver its final piece in 2018.
By 2019, all the telescope components are scheduled to be in place atop Cerro Pachón. Scientists picked 10 years as their time frame for a variety of reasons, including the life span of the equipment and because they figure it will take that long to collect enough images. Along the way, the team plans to make the photos available to the public, perhaps through Google, allowing anyone with a smartphone to look deep into the recesses of space.
"Everyone will have an opportunity to be an astronomer," said Bill Wahl, a project manager at Brookhaven. "You will be able to look at things that no one has ever seen before."