Scientists Tested Out the World’s Largest Digital Camera on a Piece of Broccoli

Soon, it’ll photograph the cosmos. But first, scientists used it to snap a highly-detailed picture of an ordinary vegetable

Romanesco broccoli
A lower resolution copy of a 3,200 megapixel image of Romanesco broccoli. The photo was taken by a camera being built to help the Vera Rubin Observatory's telescope study space. LSST Camera team / SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory / Rubin Observatory

Scientists building the world’s largest digital camera have captured the highest resolution images ever taken in a single shot, reports Mike Wall for

The photos are 3,200 megapixels (3.2 gigapixels). Displaying one of them at full size would require 378 4K ultra-high-definition TVs. The resolution is so high that a golf ball would be visible from 15 miles away, according to a statement.

When completed, the camera is headed to Cerro Pachón in northern Chile where it will be attached to the Vera Rubin Observatory’s telescope. The hulking camera, which is being put together at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California, will be able to capture sweeping panoramas of the night sky, reports Joe Palca for NPR.

Vera C. Rubin Observatory LSST Camera

Once installed at the Rubin Observatory, the camera will spend the following decade surveying roughly 20 billion galaxies.

"We'll get very deep images of the whole sky. But almost more importantly, we'll get a time sequence,” Steven Kahn, an astrophysicist at SLAC and the director of the observatory, tells Jonathan Amos of BBC News. “We'll see which stars have changed in brightness, and anything that has moved through the sky like asteroids and comets."

Each of the photos taken by the camera will encompass an area of the night sky equivalent to roughly 40 full moons.

“These data will improve our knowledge of how galaxies have evolved over time and will let us test our models of dark matter and dark energy more deeply and precisely than ever,” says Steven Ritz, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Santa Cruz who is working on the project, in the statement.

But the camera can’t start probing the mysteries of the universe until it’s fully assembled and attached to the Rubin Observatory’s telescope. In the meantime, the team needed to test out the rig’s performance.

“I invented a little thing I call a pinhole projector," Aaron Roodman, an astrophysicist at SLAC who is managing the camera’s assembly and testing, tells NPR. "Basically a metal box with a tiny pinhole at the top of it, and lights inside the box. So kind of the opposite of a pinhole camera."

This impromptu device projects the image of whatever is in the box onto the camera's sensors. The images included a photo of Vera Rubin, a renowned astronomer and the observatory’s namesake, and, of course, broccoli. But it wasn’t any old broccoli, it was a head of the Romanesco variety, which features spiraling, fractal florets. The completed portion of the camera passed the test with flying colors (the full resolution images can be viewed here).

Vera Rubin Observatory Camera
The focal plane of the Vera Rubin Observatory's camera is more than 2 feet wide. Jacqueline Orrell / SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

To capture such large, detailed images, the camera itself also has to be huge.

"The whole camera is about 13 feet from the front lens to the back where we have all our support equipment, and then 5 feet in diameter—so, massive," Roodman tells NPR.

The camera’s focal plane, similar to the imaging sensor of a digital camera, is more than 2 feet wide and is made up of 189 individual sensors that each contribute 16 megapixels, reports Ashley Strickland for CNN. What’s more, the whole array needs to be chilled to minus 150 degrees Fahrenheit to work properly.

Though progress was delayed by several months by the coronavirus pandemic, work resumed with new restrictions in place in May. Per CNN, the camera is expected to start collecting its first images of space from the Rubin Observatory in 2023.

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