Lab engineer shares in DOE project award for work on the Vera C. Rubin Observatory

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Shown is a front view of the fully assembled Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST) camera in its integration stand at SLAC National Laboratory. The LSST Camera will be part of the Vera C. Rubin Observatory under construction in northern Chile. Photo courtesy of SLAC National Laboratory

A Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) engineer and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory are among those sharing a Department of Energy (DOE) award for their roles in building the world’s newest observatory.

The DOE honor, the 2021 project management achievement award, was recently presented for work done on the Legacy Survey of Space and Time camera (LSSTCam), part of the National Science Foundation-funded Vera C. Rubin Observatory under construction in northern Chile.

The largest digital camera ever built and the largest camera ever fabricated for astronomy, the LSSTCam will start imaging the southern hemisphere in 2024.

During its expected 10 years of operations, the camera and the Rubin Observatory will detect about 20 billion galaxies – the first time a telescope will observe more galaxies than there are people on Earth.

The project management award was presented to LLNL electrical engineer Vincent Riot, SLAC and others during an hour-long Zoom meeting by Asmeret Berhe, the director of the DOE Office of Science.

“I actually had the honor to see the near-completed camera during a visit to SLAC a couple of months ago,” Berhe said, of the 3,200-megapixel camera that will capture full sky images at such a high resolution that it would take 1,500 high-definition television screens to display just one of its images.

“Your work will truly be instrumental in facilitating the amazing breakthroughs in our understanding of the nature of dark energy. You’ve built the biggest camera for astronomy in the world with the biggest lenses and the biggest focal plane. The strides we’re making today will further our understanding of the universe,” Berhe told the awards ceremony participants.

Former Rubin Observatory Director Steven Kahn, who led the observatory project from 2013 through 2021, lauded LLNL’s Riot for his efforts as the LSSTCam manager between 2016 and 2022, saying, “Vincent did a fantastic job in keeping us on budget and on schedule.”

In addition to Riot’s work managing the LSSTCam, LLNL researchers contributed to the project for more than two decades by designing major optical components for the camera, while their industrial partners fabricated the components.

Among other Lab researchers who played key roles for the LSSTCam are: Justin Wolfe, an LLNL optical engineer who was the LSSTCam optics subsystems manager; optical designer Brian Bauman; Scott Winters, the camera subsystem manager until 2018; and Scot Olivier, who managed LLNL’s involvement in the LSSTCam project for more than a decade.

A key feature of the LSSTCam designed by LLNL researchers is its three lenses, one of which is the world’s largest high-performance optical lens ever fabricated, at 5.1 feet (1.57 meters) in diameter. This optical lens and the full LSSTCam have been listed in the Guinness World Records.

The world’s largest lens and its two companion lenses (at 1.2 meters and 72 centimeters in diameter) were shipped from LLNL to SLAC for integration into the LSSTCam in 2019. The three lenses were built between 2014 and 2019 by Boulder, Colo.-based Ball Aerospace and its subcontractor, Tucson-based Arizona Optical Systems.

Beyond the camera’s lenses, LLNL scientists designed the six LSSTCam optical filters that are some of the largest optical filters ever produced.

SLAC is managing the overall design and fabrication, as well as the subcomponent integration and final assembly of the Rubin Observatory’s $168 million, 3,200-megapixel digital camera. In addition to SLAC and LLNL, the team building the camera includes an international collaboration of universities and labs, including the Paris-based Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York state.

Kahn, who is now at the University of California, Berkeley and who led the project for eight years, noted that the idea behind the world’s newest telescope is very simple: Build a telescope that can take large format digital images of the sky very quickly, so that the entire southern hemisphere can be surveyed in a just a few nights – and then do that repeatedly for 10 years.

He called the observatory’s scientific implications profound, noting the telescope will measure everything that moves in the sky, such as asteroids, comets and proper motion; everything that varies in time in the sky, such as stellar variations and stellar explosions, and everything in the sky, allowing the construction of some of the deepest images ever taken over the whole sky.

DOE project management awards are presented to individuals or teams who have made significant capital asset project management contributions and who have demonstrated significant or exceptional results in completing a project within cost and schedule.