The Sloan Digital Sky Survey imaged over 30% of the sky between the years of 1998-2008, creating the largest digital colour image of the sky ever taken. To view all of the SDSS imaging at once, would require 500,000 HD televisions (so it can be displayed at full resolution), and with more than a trillion pixels, this image dwarfs the 1.5 billion pixel image that NASA recently claimed was the biggest ever taken.
The SDSS Camera which took all of this imaging is now retired, and was collected by the Smithsonian Institution, to be packed away in a basement as an “artifact of scientific significance”.
The SDSS camera was made by arranging together an array of thirty, 2048×2048 pixel CCD chips. In the 1990s this was state-of-the-art, and even today a 126 Megapixel camera is nothing to sniff at (e.g the current state-of-the-art is DECam which has 62 CCDs and a total of 520 Megapixels).
The CCD chips in the SDSS camera were aligned in five columns, each covered by one of the five filters used to make the colour imaging (the u-, g-, r-, i- and z-bands, roughly corresponding to collecting light in the near-ultraviolet, green, red, near-infrared and a bit less near-infrared respectively).
This arrangement meant that the camera could take images continuously as the Earth rotated and moved it with respect to the sky overhead. SDSS images are therefore arranged in long stripes of constant Declination across the sky (the most famous being “Stripe 82” which was imaged many times). You can make out some of these stripes around the edges of the stitched together image (the “legs of the orange spider” below).
This post is part of the SDSS Celebration of the International Year of Light 2015, in which we aim to post an article a month about how SDSS uses light in our mission to study the Universe.