The Hubble Space Telescope

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The Hubble Space Telescope is one of the most famous telescopes in the world.

Oops, excuse me—one of the most famous telescopes built.

Hubble, after all, is certainly not in this world. Unless you call the universe the “world,” it’s about as far from being in this world as you can get. It’s in space.

Hubble isn’t that different from an ordinary, ground telescope. It’s only as big as a bus. There are bigger optical telescopes. Its mirror is 2.4 m across—hardly an achievement by modern-day standards.

Palomar Observatory, which was the biggest telescope in the world when it was built, has better optics than Hubble, meaning its images are a bit crisper.

But that doesn’t keep astronomers from continuing to use Hubble. In fact, if you want to use Hubble, you have to get in line—it hardly has time to complete all the projects astronomers ask of it, even observing the night sky 24/7.

So why is Hubble so useful? Continue reading

Interferometry

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Imagine you have an image like this. This object is faint and faraway, so you can’t make out much more detail. You know that other stars like it—closer, brighter stars—have looked like this and turned out to be two stars, nestled very close together.

How do you figure out what you’re looking at? How do you increase the resolving power on your telescope so that you can make out more detail?

A telescope’s resolving power is limited by its size. Bigger telescopes can make out more detail on faraway objects—that’s because they can gather more light. But now, we can make telescopes that are so big their size doesn’t limit their resolving power anymore.

The atmosphere does.

We obviously can’t change the atmosphere. So how do we get around this particular predicament? Continue reading

Improved Telescope Mirrors

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When it comes to telescopes, bigger is always better.

Bigger means more light-gathering power and better resolution. And a longer telescope—meaning, a longer focal length—can actually do wonders for your magnification power.

Light-gathering power, by the way, just means how much light a telescope can gather—and it works the same way as rain in a bucket. The bigger the bucket, the more rain you can collect.

And resolution means how much detail you can see in an image. It goes hand in hand with light-gathering power—more light means more detail.

So bigger, for serious astronomers, is the way to go. Until your mirror starts sagging.

Yeah…that’s a bit of a problem. But nowadays, we can fix it. Continue reading

Improved Reflecting Telescopes

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Can you tell the difference between these two telescopes?

I’ll give you a hint. They are both reflectors. I know I wrote before that you’ll normally find the eyepiece (the little bit tacked onto the telescope tube) on the side with reflectors, but as you can see here, this isn’t always the case.

Here’s another hint. The mounting setup isn’t the difference I’m talking about. I realize the most obvious difference is probably that one is on a “fork mount” (right) and the other is on an equatorial mount (left), but I’m thinking of something related to the optics.

Don’t worry, we’ll talk about these two mounting systems in a later post.

So, can anyone venture a guess and tell me what’s different about these two telescopes? Continue reading

Telescope Powers

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Have you seen one of these guys before?

You probably have, even if you don’t recognize this brand-new innovation. This is the European Extremely Large Telescope, or the E-ELT. I know, imaginative name, huh? Anyway, it’s not all that different from one of those white observatory domes you’re used to seeing.

Astronomers keep building new observatories. They keep putting new telescopes into space—Hubble, Spitzer, and James Webb, to name a few. But the common goal of all the telescopes they build is to make telescopes that are as big as possibly possible.

Why? I mean, are astronomers just huge braggarts that like to impress us all with their big toys?

Well…I’ll admit that we astronomers have a lot of fun with our toys. But we need huge telescopes for a much better reason than bragging. Continue reading