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Different types of telescopes use different part of the electromagnetic spectrum; some telescopes orbit in space.

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How Do We See Space?

WWGD? What would Galileo do if he were alive today?

If you think oceans are inhospitable, try space! Humans have been to our Moon and many have orbited Earth in spacecraft, even staying for months at a time in a space station. Much of what has been learned about space since Galileo has been through a telescope. Although astronomers use very large telescopes, many of which pick up wavelengths of energy other than visible light, there is still much to be gained from looking at the planets and stars on a clear night. If you haven't ever looked at the night sky through a telescope you should try to soon!

Electromagnetic Radiation

Electromagnetic (EM) radiation is energy that is transmitted through space as a wave. Light is one type of EM wave. An EM wave has two components: an electric field and a magnetic field. 

Visible light, the light that human eyes can see, comes in a variety of colors. The color of visible light is determined by its wavelength, distance between wave crests. Visible light ranges from wavelengths of 400 nm to 700 nm, corresponding to the colors violet through red. EM radiation with wavelengths shorter than 400 nm or longer than 700 nm exists all around you — you just can’t see it.

The electromagnetic spectrum

(a) Visible light is part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which ranges from gamma rays with very short wavelengths, to radio waves with very long wavelengths. (b) These are images of the same scene. In the top, only the wavelengths of visible light show. In the bottom, a layer of thick clouds appears in the infrared wavelengths.

Like our Sun, every star emits light at a wide range of wavelengths, all across the visible spectrum and even outside the visible spectrum. Astronomers can learn a lot from studying the details of the spectrum of light from a star.

Types of Telescopes

The term "telescope" was coined by the Italian scientist and mathematician Galileo Galilei (1564–1642). Galileo built the first telescope in 1608 and subsequently made many improvements to telescope design.

Optical Telescopes

Telescopes that rely on the refraction, or bending, of light by lenses are called refracting telescopes, or simply "refractors." Galileo’s and other early telescopes were all refractors. Many of the small telescopes used by amateur astronomers today are refractors. Refractors are particularly good for viewing details within our solar system, such as the surface of Earth’s Moon or the rings around Saturn.

Around 1670, Sir Isaac Newton created the first reflecting telescopes, or "reflectors." The mirrors in a reflecting telescope are much lighter than the heavy glass lenses in a refractor. This is significant, because:

  • To support the thick glass lenses, a refractor must be strong and heavy.
  • Mirrors are easier to make precisely than it is to make glass lenses.
  • Because they do not need to be as heavy to support the same size lens, reflectors can be made larger than refractors.

Larger telescopes can collect more light and so they can study dimmer or more distant objects. The largest optical telescopes in the world today are reflectors. 

Radio Telescopes

Even larger telescopes are built to collect light at longer wavelengths — radio waves. Radio telescopes collect and focus radio waves or microwaves, the waves with the shortest wavelength, from space.

The largest single telescope in the world is at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico (Figure below). This telescope is located in a naturally occurring hole so that it does not collapse under its own weight. Since the telescope is set into the ground, it cannot be aimed to different parts of the sky and so can only observe the part of the sky that happens to be overhead at a given time.

The radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico

The radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory has a diameter of 305 m.

A group of radio telescopes can be linked together with a computer so that they are all observing the same object (Figure below). The computer combines the data, making the group function like one single telescope.

The Very Large Array in New Mexico consists of 27 radio telescopes

Radio telescopes at the Very Large Array, the National Radio Observatory in New Mexico.

Scientists have upped their search for extraterrestrial intelligence with the Allen Telescope Array, a string of 350 radio telescopes, located 300 miles north of San Francisco. Find out why SETI scientists now say we might be hearing from ET sooner than you think.

Space Telescopes

Earth’s atmosphere not only blocks radiation in some parts of the EM spectrum, but also distorts light. Observatories built on high mountains lessen these problems, but space telescopes avoid such problems completely because they orbit outside Earth’s atmosphere. Space telescopes can carry instruments to observe objects emitting various types of electromagnetic radiation, such as visible, infrared, or ultraviolet light; gamma rays; or x-rays.

The Hubble Space Telescope (HST), shown in Figure below, has orbited Earth for more than 20 years, sending back the most amazing images and helping to answer many of the biggest questions in astronomy. The James Webb Space Telescope, designed to replace the aging Hubble, is targeted for launch in 2018.

Find out more by visiting the Hubble Space Telescope website at http://hubblesite.org.

The Hubble Space Telescope and a starburst cluster

(a) The Hubble Space Telescope orbits Earth at an altitude of 589 km (366 mi). It collects data in visible, infrared, and ultraviolet wavelengths. (b) This starburst cluster is one of the many fantastic images taken by the HST over the past two decades.

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