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World's largest camera, costly, fragile and built in California, makes epic journey to South American mountaintop

Ethan Baron, The Mercury News on

Published in Home and Consumer News

The world’s biggest camera was on its way from its birthplace at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California, to a mountaintop half a hemisphere away in the foothills of the Andes. But there was a problem. And it required an order from Chile’s President Gabriel Boric to solve.

“This was very high stakes operation. It’s the future of U.S. astronomy,” said SLAC engineer and camera project manager Travis Lange. “There are literally thousands of people that are planning on using the data.”

In addition to its famous linear accelerator which is used to find the tiniest particles in the universe, and now the massive camera, SLAC is known for building large, sophisticated machines using X-rays, lasers, and electron beams to untangle enigmas on earth and in the cosmos.

Most of the monumental trip had gone smoothly for the $168 million instrument, which will provide never-before-seen views into outer space and allow groundbreaking astronomical research from its perch in the specially built Rubin Observatory atop the Cerro Pachón ridge in Chile.

Its slow, before-dawn journey began May 14 in a shipping container on a flatbed truck that traveled from SLAC up Highway 280, then down to San Francisco International Airport. Within a few hours the container holding the 5 1/2-foot tall, 10-foot long, 6,250-pound camera was safely fastened to the floor of a chartered 747 cargo jet, along with two additional containers and dozens of crates holding its associated equipment.

The nearly 11-hour flight to Santiago, Chile also went well, said Lange and fellow SLAC engineer Margaux Lopez, who were tasked with leading the operation to pack up and ship the device to the observatory.

 

But they didn’t plan on striking truckers blocking highways around Santiago, the nation’s capital, in protests that threatened to throw a giant logistical wrench into the transportation mission.

It is a testament to the importance of the camera to science that Chile’s Interior Minister Carolina Tohá Morales took the call about the blockade from an official with the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, and then called Boric, who ordered a police escort so the camera could get through.

There were a few hitches as the nine-truck camera convoy wound its way for more than six hours up a 22-mile gravel road to Cerro Pachón at about 8,900 foot elevation in the Andes foothills — notably a loss of traction by the vehicle carrying the camera container — but it arrived safely mid-day May 16.

On Tuesday, Lopez, who had been working on the transportation plan since 2018, pronounced herself “very relieved” and “also proud.” As soon as she had learned of the strike, and a separate labor action involving equipment handlers at the Santiago airport, she created five different scenarios to address the issues.

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