The camera for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope just got its approval for a final design phase this week, which is exiting news for all you space fans out there. When it's finished, the LSST camera will be the largest digital camera ever made, and it'll be able to image the entire visible sky every single week.
The sky is a big place, which is why you need a big camera to deal with it, and the LSST camera is truly massive. If you didn't notice, the picture above shows a rendering of the camera with a person standing next to it: this thing is about the size of a car. The sensor itself is a staggering 3,200 megapixels (or 3.2 gigapixels), but there's no gigapan-style trickery going on here. Every time the LSST camera takes an exposure, you get one gigantic 3.2 billion pixel image out the back. This is roughly the equivalent of taking a regular old six megapixel digital camera out every night and shooting, oh, about 800,000 images. Over the course of an entire year, the LSST should produce six million gigs of imagery data, all of which will be publicly archived.
Why do we need a telescope and camera this size? Well, the thing about having a huge camera is that it comes with a correspondingly huge field of view. There's a lot going on in the night sky, but most telescopes are optimized for making small and dim things look large and bright, which means that they can only focus on one tiny little patch of sky at any given time. The LSST, on the other hand, will be capturing images that cover 49 times the area of the Moon in a single exposure, and it should be able to snap high res images of the entire southern sky over the course of a week. What this means is that astronomers will be able to slowly build up a movie of the visible universe, showing how things change over time and making it easy to target anything brand new that appears unexpectedly. And you, the public, will have access to a special alert system that'll let you know whenever the LSST spots anything especially cool from week to week.
Work has already begun on the LSST's eight meter primary mirror, and the construction site for the telescope (on top of a mountain down in Chile) is underway. The camera itself will start to be put together in 2014, and the hope is that the telescope should be up and running by the end of the decade.