Later this year, the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, which is being constructed in Chile, is expected to use its telescope for the first time to take an image of the night sky. In astronomy terms, this is called the ‘first light. But what makes this observatory extra special is a survey of the vast night sky that will commence in 2022.
During 10 years of operations starting late next year, the Rubin Observatory will carry out an unprecedented optical survey of the visible sky named the Legacy Survey of Space and Time or the LSST. The survey's design is driven by four main scientific themes: probing dark energy and dark matter, taking an inventory of the solar system, exploring the transient optical sky, and mapping the Milky Way. It will aim to produce the deepest and widest image of the universe.
The most fascinating technological highlights of this next-generation observatory located in north-central Chile are its telescope and gigapixel digital camera. The 8.4-meter Simonyi Survey Telescope at the observatory uses a special three-mirror design, which creates an exceptionally wide field of view, and has the ability to survey the entire sky in only three nights. The 3,200 megapixel camera on the other hand, is the largest digital camera ever constructed for the field of astronomy. The size of a small car and weighing almost 2,800 kg, this enormous camera will produce images so large that 1,500 high-definition TV screens would be required to view each one.
One of the most challenging aspects of the observatory will be storing and managing the vast amount of data that it will collect. The speed with which the observatory will map the southern sky and the depth to which it can see will produce an enormous volume of data: about 20 terabytes of raw data every night. Over the 10-year survey, the total amount of data collected will be about 60 petabytes.
In that regard, the observatory recently entered into a three-year agreement with Google Cloud to host the astronomy data. “This agreement marks the first time a cloud-based data facility has been used for an astronomy application of this magnitude. The Rubin IDF (or Interim Data Facility) will process astronomical data collected by Rubin Observatory and make the data available to hundreds of users in the scientific community in advance of Rubin Observatory’s 10-year Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST),” an official Google Cloud blog explains.
Apart from its technological and astronomy prowess, the Rubin Observatory breaks the mould elsewhere too. It was originally known as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, but was renamed last year after the renowned American astronomer Vera Rubin, who provided important evidence on the existence of dark matter through her pioneering work. She died in 2016. According to an official press release from the Association Of Universities For Research In Astronomy, Rubin's career spanned several areas in observational astronomy but she was most recognized for uncovering the discrepancy between the observed and predicted motions of matter in galaxies. This discrepancy is interpreted as evidence for dark matter, which exerts gravitational force but does not emit light as ordinary matter does.