How to move the world’s largest camera from a California lab to an Andean mountaintop

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A multi-million dollar digital camera could revolutionize astronomy.But before that, I need to climb a mountain half way around the world.

by rahul rao

A worker shines a flashlight on a camera at the Vera C. Rubin Observatory.

J. Ramseyer Aurel/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory/NOIRLab (CC BY 4.0)

If all goes according to plan, by late next year the Vera C. Rubin Observatory will begin a 10-year survey of our solar system, the Milky Way, and the galaxies beyond. That huge eye in the southern sky, 3.2 gigapixel camera The size and weight of a light car. In terms of mass and pixel resolution, it is the largest digital camera on Earth. Scan the universe from the top of a mountain called Cerro Pachon in northern Chile.

There’s just one problem. The delicate, nearly 3-ton machine is currently located some 10,000 kilometers away in the hills above San Francisco Bay, where its manufacturer is conducting final tests. In the coming weeks, the precision-engineered cameras will begin a tense intercontinental voyage, flown by cargo planes, towed by trucks and painstakingly escorted down winding mountain roads.

The daunting logistics fall on members of an obscure but important engineering subdiscipline dedicated to keeping millions of dollars of astronomical hardware intact in transit.This is “a very obvious and visible moment when things can go wrong,” says the engineer. Margaux Lopez Director of Rubin Observatory and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

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The Rubin camera’s journey begins in a Silicon Valley cleanroom, where SLAC equips the camera with an exoskeleton made of steel and wire rope. “Essentially, it’s like a frame riding on the springs of another frame,” says the SLAC and Rubin engineer. Martin Nordby. This shield pushes the camera within the confines of a standard shipping container and protects its delicate interior from vibrations. Then, over two days in May, SLAC personnel transported 49 boxes of camera containers and equipment to San Francisco International Airport, loaded everything onto a chartered Boeing 747 cargo plane, and took it to Arturo Merino Benitez International Airport. Prepare for a 16 hour flight. Airport in Santiago, Chile.

Rubin’s team was relatively lucky. Some of the other telescopes in development will similarly have to spend weeks traveling by sea to reach the observatory under Chile’s exceptionally clear skies.When Fred Young Submillimeter Telescope transmits his five-story tall telescope support structureBecause it is too large to fit on a cargo plane, it must travel from Germany to Chile via a bulk carrier via Antwerp, Belgium.

of the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) huge mirror It also uses sea routes from Europe to Chile. “Up until now…we’ve been transporting almost everything by plane, but with the new types of sizes we’re talking about with ELT, planes are either not big enough or the cost is prohibitive. The European Southern Observatory is working on ELT but is not involved in the Rubin project.

Regardless of the route or mode of transportation, physical damage is always a threat. Astronomy requires some of the world’s most delicate components by design. Everything from bumps in the road to turbulence in the air can rattle sensitive electronics or cause painstakingly placed parts to collide and become misaligned.including mirror Rubin’s work Those arriving in Chile in 2019 may require refrigeration and humidity control, risking damage to the coating.

Transit can cause other headaches that anyone who has experience with international shipping is familiar with. Due to bad weather or other problems, the direction of transportation may be changed or stopped.A few years ago, a container ship was damaged due to a miscommunication. simons observatory The observatory staff at the port were worried about the two-week anchorage off the coast of Chile. Even observatories have to go through customs, especially when leaving the United States. For example, astronomical equipment made in the United States may be at risk. Government export controls It is designed to keep advanced optical technology domestic.

All these concerns mean engineers try to “control every step of the entire chain as much as possible,” Kurlandczyk says. Although Santiago is on the other side of the equator from San Francisco, SLAC will continue to monitor camera transit within Chile. When the 747 lands, its cargo is loaded into his nine-vehicle caravan. Each vehicle resembles a curtainside truck used to transport beverages and is equipped with air-ride suspension for added protection from vibrations. The caravan’s six-hour road trip to the base of Cerro Pachon is a prelude to the most difficult part of the trip: transporting the camera from the base of the mountain to the summit viewing platform.

Rubin Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/H. Stokke Brand (CC BY 4.0)

This last leg is a 35km journey up a winding road of dirt roads and switchbacks. It’s narrow and dangerous, and the observatory at the top can’t accommodate more than one truck at a time, so it would take three days to work with three trucks a day. Additionally, the truck equipped with the camera body is escorted by observation vehicles at the front and rear, and can travel at speeds of less than 10 kilometers per hour. López said it will take five hours to lift the camera, compared to about 90 minutes for most other cargo.

Lopez and his colleagues can take some comfort in the fact that they’ve already practiced nearly every step of the journey using dummies with the same mass as the telescope parts. They loaded these weights into trucks and drove them up and down the highways of the San Francisco Peninsula and the roads of Chile. They also rehearsed a flight from California to Chile.

“When we work on something, it’s basically the first time it’s been done,” Lopez says. “We spent a lot of effort finding ways to practice these delicate steps with something less fragile before using $25 million in optics.”

This six-day camera trip took more than five years of preparation. “This has to work. It has to succeed. You can’t break anything or lose anything along the way, and you can’t choose any failure mode you like,” Lopez said. says. “But we have a very solid logistics plan and are ready to go.”

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