At an altitude of 2,660 metres (8,730 feet) on the El Peñón peak in northern Chile, construction is underway of one of the most remarkable telescopes ever to be devised. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) is unprecedented in size, and with an aperture of 8.4 metres (27.4 feet) it will be able to capture light instantaneously from a mammoth area of 320 square metres (3,440 square feet) in the night sky with its staggering 3.2-billion-pixel digital camera (the biggest on the planet).
The four parts of its name are representative of the major features of the telescope. ‘Large’ refers to the enormous primary mirror that will provide astronomers with an unrivalled view of the night sky. ‘Synoptic’ is the movie-like window on the universe the LSST will unveil by taking over 400,000 16-megapixel images every night, allowing astronomers to see videos of celestial objects that change or move rapidly. ‘Survey’ is the immediate release of data to the public, allowing numerous studies to be made by anyone including mapping the mass of dark matter in the cosmos and tracking the closest asteroids to Earth.
‘Telescope’, somewhat predictably, refers to the entire structure that will house all of this incredible technology. Unusually for such a huge telescope, the LSST project is the work of a non-profit private organisation known as the LSST Corporation, which has raised funding through both private pledges and national grants. Construction of the telescope in its high-altitude position – perfect for clear views unhindered by the atmosphere – began back in November 2007, and as of July 2012 the LSST has entered its final design phase. It is set to be completed in 2014 and initially is expected to run until 2024.