On September 1, a team at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Centre released the largest digital picture ever taken: 3200 megapixels.
Assuming you are using one of the latest smartphones, you would need to take and stitch 250 photos together to achieve the same picture size.
The subject of this historic picture was an old black and white photograph of Vera Rubin, an astronomer whose work led to the discovery of dark matter. As a big step forward in the recognition of women's contributions in astronomy, she is now the first woman to have a large observatory named after her: The Vera C. Rubin observatory. Nearing completion in Chile, the observatory combines an 8m telescope that can see large areas of the sky at a time with the Stanford camera to perform the largest survey of the universe.
To explain what makes this observatory so special and exciting - beside camera size bragging rights - we need to understand one key limitation astronomers have been dealing with over the years: how do we catch short-lasting events in such a large universe?
Making telescopes larger allows you to see fainter and therefore more distant objects but it doesn't help you catch a supernova explosion if you are not pointing the telescope in the right direction.
The Rubin Observatory solves this problem with a telescope design that allows for a very large field-of-view of 10 square degrees, 40 times the size of the full moon. This is also why it needs such a large camera - to be able to capture the details of such a huge part of the sky.
The 8m telescope will continuously scan and take pictures of the sky, night after night looking for changes. It is a giant game of "spot the difference", comparing new images with images of the same part of the sky taken in previous nights. The differences will highlight events like merging stars, stellar deaths, sand tars interacting with their surroundings. All of these transient events reveal new science and will help us answer questions about the nature of the Universe.
We will also learn more about our own backyard. The telescope is sensitive enough to capture small rocky objects, like Pluto, living beyond Neptune.
In this region, called the Kuiper belt, we will be able to catalogue and track tens of thousands of objects. There is no question it will discover new Pluto-like planets and help us expand our knowledge of our Solar System.
Looking even closer, the telescope will be the best alarm bell against the type of asteroids that were once responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs. While many of these objects are too small to be tracked accurately by current telescopes, the Rubin Observatory will be able to inventory and determine the orbits of potential civilisation-ending asteroids.
With the camera now complete and on its way to Chile, astronomers are only a few months away from having this new facility online. Because of the massive amount of data it will produce (20n terabytes of images per night) it will keep scientists busy for years to come and a new tool to teach our children about the universe.
- Tony Travouillon is an astronomer at the Mount Stromlo Observatory.