Astronomers are about to begin making a time lapse of the night sky using the largest digital camera ever constructed. Designed to reveal any new or moving point of light as well as the structure of the universe, the new $473 million Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile will take so many images, so fast, that it will effectively produce an astronomical movie that allows scientists to see the universe in real time.

Formerly known as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, the Rubin Observatory is expected to give astronomers the data they need to unravel some of the deepest mysteries of how the universe works. The observatory is named after the trailblazing astronomer Vera C. Rubin, who found evidence for dark matter, the mysterious substance that binds galaxies together. 

The observatory is set to undertake a 10-year time lapse of the universe. Here’s everything you need to know about the Vera C. Rubin Observatory and its groundbreaking mission.

What is the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, and why is it unique?

The Vera C. Rubin Observatory will be like no other telescope on Earth. The extremely wide-field telescope will initiate the decade-long Legacy Survey of Space and Time, a hugely ambitious project to image the entire Southern Hemisphere night sky every three to four nights.

While many modern telescopes are built for close-ups, the observatory’s Simonyi Survey Telescope, which boasts a 27.6-foot-wide (8.4 meters) primary mirror, has a field of view about the same as the diameter of seven full moons.

The Rubin Observatory has been under construction since 2014 at an altitude of 8,900 feet (2,700 m) on the peak of Cerro Pachón in Chile.

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The largest lens of the Vera C. Rubin Observatory camera, which measures 1.57 meters (5.2 feet) across, making it the largest optical lens in the world.  (Image credit: SAFRAN)

What kinds of instruments will the Rubin Observatory use?

The Rubin Observatory is about to be fitted with the world’s largest camera dedicated to astronomy and astrophysics. The $168 LSSTCam has a 2-foot-wide (0.6 m) focal plane with 189 individual 16-megapixel charge coupled device sensors, resulting in a remarkable 3,200-megapixel image. It also has six of the largest optical filters ever produced to see the universe in different wavelengths of light, according to the telescope’s official website.

Just as impressive is the mount, which will slew to a new position in just five seconds, allowing the camera to take a high-resolution image every 39 seconds. Fiber optics will carry each image to a supercomputer in California within two minutes for analysis. If there’s anything new or changed in the image compared with a reference image, astronomers will be alerted.  

The Vera C. Rubin Observatory’s telescope mount assembly will support an 8.4-meter (27.6 feet) telescope. (Image credit: Rubin Observatory/NSF/AURA)

What will the Rubin Observatory look for?

The telescope’s data will be used for two purposes. The first is planetary defense. Its images are expected to reveal about 90% of all potentially hazardous asteroids, which are defined as asteroids larger than 640 feet (140 m) in diameter that could come within 4.65 million miles (7.48 million kilometers) of Earth. This includes dangerous and elusive asteroids normally hidden in the sun’s glare.

In addition, the observatory should identify as-yet-unseen interstellar comets, free-floating stars and rogue planets. One of the biggest solar system objects it could reveal is Planet Nine, a hypothetical world that may lurk at the outer reaches of our solar system. Experts say that within a year of going live, the giant telescope may have produced enough data to find the elusive world — or rule it out forever.

However, in the longer term, it will also reveal many thousands — or even millions — of supernovas, as well as galaxies and their structures, which could prove crucial to our understanding of dark energy and dark matter. 

When will the Rubin Observatory start operations?

LSSTCam arrived at Cerro Pachón in May 2024, but science operations are still far off. They’re expected to start late in 2025 or early 2026, although alignment and testing images will likely be released in spring 2025, according to the observatory website.

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