If you look at the sky when you are far away from city lights, there seem to be an overwhelming number of stars up there. In reality, only about 9000 stars are visible to the unaided eye (from both hemispheres of our planet). The light from most stars is so weak that by the time it reaches Earth, it cannot be detected by the human eye. How can we learn about the vast majority of objects in the universe that our unaided eyes simply cannot see?
In this chapter, we describe the tools astronomers use to extend their vision into space. We have learned almost everything we know about the universe from studying electromagnetic radiation, as discussed in the chapter on Radiation and Spectra. In the twentieth century, our exploration of space made it possible to detect electromagnetic radiation at all wavelengths, from gamma rays to radio waves. The different wavelengths carry different kinds of information, and the appearance of any given object often depends on the wavelength at which the observations are made.
- 6.1: Telescopes
- A telescope collects the faint light from astronomical sources and brings it to a focus. Light is then directed to a detector, where a permanent record is made. The light-gathering power of a telescope is determined by the diameter of its aperture, or opening—that is, by the area of its largest or primary lens or mirror. The primary optical element in a telescope is either a convex lens (in a refracting telescope) or a concave mirror (in a reflector) that brings the light to a focus.
- 6.2: Telescopes Today
- New technologies for creating and supporting lightweight mirrors have led to the construction of a number of large telescopes since 1990. The site for an astronomical observatory must be carefully chosen for clear weather, dark skies, low water vapor, and excellent atmospheric seeing (low atmospheric turbulence). The resolution of a visible-light or infrared telescope is degraded by turbulence in Earth’s atmosphere. The technique of adaptive optics can make corrections for this turbulence.
- 6.3: Visible-Light Detectors and Instruments
- Visible-light detectors include the human eye, photographic film, and charge-coupled devices (CCDs). Detectors that are sensitive to infrared radiation must be cooled to very low temperatures since everything in and near the telescope gives off infrared waves. A spectrometer disperses the light into a spectrum to be recorded for detailed analysis.
- 6.4: Radio Telescopes
- A radio telescope is basically a radio antenna connected to a receiver. Significantly enhanced resolution can be obtained with interferometers, including interferometer arrays like the 27-element VLA and the 66-element ALMA. Expanding to very long baseline interferometers, radio astronomers can achieve resolutions as precise as 0.0001 arcsecond. Radar astronomy involves transmitting as well as receiving. The largest radar telescope currently in operation is a 305-meter bowl at Arecibo.
- 6.5: Observations outside Earth's Atmosphere
- Infrared observations are made with telescopes aboard aircraft and in space and from ground-based facilities on dry mountain peaks. Ultraviolet, X-ray, and gamma-ray observations must be made from above the atmosphere. Orbiting observatories have been flown to observe in these bands of the spectrum. The largest-aperture telescope in space is the Hubble Space telescope, the most significant infrared telescope is Spitzer.
- 6.6: The Future of Large Telescopes
- New and even larger telescopes are on the drawing boards. The James Webb Space Telescope, a 6-meter successor to Hubble, is currently scheduled for launch in 2018. Gamma-ray astronomers are planning to build the CTA to measure very energetic gamma rays. Astronomers are building the LSST to observe with an unprecedented field of view and a new generation of visible-light/infrared telescopes with apertures of 24.5 to 39 meters in diameter.
Thumbnail: This artist’s impression shows the Hubble above Earth, with the rectangular solar panels that provide it with power seen to the left and right.
Contributors and Attributions
Andrew Fraknoi (Foothill College), David Morrison (NASA Ames Research Center), Sidney C. Wolff (National Optical Astronomy Observatory) with many contributing authors. Textbook content produced by OpenStax College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 license. Download for free at https://openstax.org/details/books/astronomy).