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Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Planet's Biggest Camera: Scanning the Skies with 1.4 Gigapixels

2400548669_336e54db73 Cameras are one of the hottest subjects for geek gadget envy, with increasingly evolved camera-phones boasting up to five megapixels, while dedicated camera-carriers brag about the ridiculously high resolution offered by eight megapixels. Which is why MIT took the time to remind us all who the alpha nerds are, building a billion-pixel camera. Which watches out for threats to Earth, as if the sheer ludicrous size of the camera wasn't cool enough.

The Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) will scan the sky from beautiful Hawaii. This has long been a popular spot for observatories as one of the best vantage points on the surface (or at least that's what all the astronomers who get to work in Hawaii tell us, anyway).

The camera core is an eight by eight array of eight by eight arrays of cells. That's not an accidental repeat, that's eight to the fourth equals four thousand and ninety-six CCD cells, each one of which could kick the hell out of your little digital imager, adding up to a forty square centimeter focal plane with 1.4 Gigapixels.

The camera is billed as searching for rogue asteroids and other near Earth objects, because apparently you still have to justify building something like this with reasons other than "But look at how big the number is!" The system will be able to pick out objects as small as 300 meters (big enough to simulate several atomic warheads and take a good solid chunk out of a country). If the Pan-STARRS does pick up a species-busting asteroid on the way, we have to wonder what the "Rapid Response" in the title could be (apart from "take pictures for aliens to find when they sift through the wreckage.")

Maybe it has Bruce Willis's phone number.

By Luke McKinney

Photo credit: Institute for Astronomy, University of Hawaii

Gigapictures on Technology Review