Tech

How the telescope became our window on the universe

From the first stone tools to seagoing vessels to the internet, technology has been at the heart of human exploration and discovery.

But to begin exploring outer space, the final frontier, humans first had to master a deceptively simple piece of technology: the telescope.

“Telescopes have opened a window into a world of science we could not have imagined before,” said Brian Odom, NASA acting historian.

Our knowledge of the universe has grown exponentially because of telescopes – and how they challenged the prevailing science and status quo at every step.

First sight

UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 3: These replicas, made in 1923 and 1924, are from telescopes invented by Galileo in 1609 and Sir Isaac Newton in 1668. Galileo's telescope (right) uses lenses to magnify about 21x, but offers very limited views, allowing him to only see about a third of the moon at a time.
These 1923 and 1924 replicas are from telescopes invented by Galileo around 1609 and Sir Isaac Newton in 1668. Galileo’s telescope (right) uses lenses to magnify about 21x, but offers very limited visibility, allowing him to only see about a third of the moon at a time.
SSPL via Getty Images

Telescopes have a long and eventful history. Centuries of developments in lens technology and the study of optics contributed to the emergence of the telescope, according to the American Institute of Physics.

That first known telescope was made in the Netherlands in the early 17th century. In October 1608 a patent was filed for a tube with a concave and a convex lens. The eyewear maker Hans Lippershey is often credited with the invention that made it possible to “see things from a distance as well as from close up”.

Then in 1609 the telescope was used study the night sky according to NASA for the first time. The Italian Galileo Galilei built his own telescope which, although small and only capable of providing fuzzy resolution, gave the astronomer the opportunity to see the moon’s craters and mountains along with the Milky Way.

“Before Galileo, there was some understanding that the earth is the center of the universe,” Odom said. “But by using this telescope, Galileo is able to answer these questions with an accuracy previously elusive to mankind.”

In the centuries since Galileo, telescopes have grown significantly in size and power, and advanced telescopes are now scattered in observatories around the world.

“We can use these great telescopes to look beyond the solar system, which I think brings together a whole new spectrum of questions,” Odom said.

Above everything

Perry Walker, a retired Air Force officer and amateur astronomer, adjusts the telescope in his home-built observatory before observing the sky from his home near Daniel, WY, about 60 miles north of the Jonah oil and gas fields. Walker says the haze from the bore has reduced his ability to detect terrestrial objects that were once visible.
Perry Walker, a retired Air Force officer and amateur astronomer, adjusts the telescope in his home-built observatory before observing the sky from his home near Daniel, WY, about 60 miles north of the Jonah oil and gas fields. Walker says the haze from the bore has reduced his ability to detect terrestrial objects that were once visible.
Denver Post via Getty Images

Advances in telescope technology have advanced our understanding of space.

But unlike traditional tube telescopes, which — as described in Lippershey’s patent — allow users to see distant objects up close, advanced telescopes allow users to “see” distant objects by recognizing information that’s too far away and are invisible to the human eye.

The naked eye can only see a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, which represents the full range of energy in the universe. While the electromagnetic spectrum includes a range of frequencies, such as B. those of X-rays and gamma rays, the frequency that humans can see includes visible light and colors.

But for telescopes in observatories to be able to see what the human eye cannot, they must have a clear view of the electromagnetic energy in space. And while placing observatories far from city lights, on remote islands, or high on mountaintops helps make this view possible, going into space gives you the best view.

“We are thinking of our large ground-based observatories looking out into space. It’s like standing at the bottom of a pool and looking up,” Odom said.

“The water blocks what you would see, and the atmosphere performs a similar function by blocking the electromagnetic spectrum because things like X-rays and gamma rays bounce off it,” he added.

“By rising above the atmosphere, we can look at it with a clear lens.”

The first space telescopes

The Spitzer Space Telescope, one of NASA's major observatories, zooms in front of a brilliant infrared view of the Milky Way's plane in this artist's rendering.
The Spitzer Space Telescope, one of NASA’s major observatories, zooms in front of a brilliant infrared view of the Milky Way’s plane in this artist’s rendering.
NASA

Space telescopes were game changers in the field of astronomy.

In 1968, NASA launched its first successful space telescope. Called the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory (OOO) 2, or affectionately dubbed the “Stargazer,” it was NASA’s first observatory in the stars, giving scientists a view of the electromagnetic spectrum never before seen in space.

OAO 2 ushered in a new era of space exploration. It helped start an initiative called America’s Great Observatories, which included building and launching other and more advanced space telescopes.

One of them was the Hubble Space Telescope. According to Odom, plans for Hubble were first proposed by astronomer Lyman Spitzer almost 50 years before Hubble was launched in 1990.

Later known as “Father of Hubble‘, Spitzer headed an ad hoc National Academy of Science committee on the Large Space Telescope beginning in the 1960s, and then helped lobby the US Congress to secure federal funding for what would become the Hubble Space Telescope .

Since Hubble had a “father”, it also had a “mother‘: NASA’s first chief astronomer, Nancy Grace Roman.

“She was a network builder, she was someone who collaborated,” Odom said. According to Odom, Roman was at the heart of NASA’s astronomy program and thanks to their combined efforts, she was able to build support for the funding and construction of Hubble.

On April 25, 1990, Hubble was launched into space, where it remains operational to this day.

Because of Hubble’s position above Earth’s atmosphere, it can see with a clarity unmatched by any telescope before it. According to NASA, Hubble can see objects in space with an angular magnitude of 0.05 arcseconds, which is similar to seeing a pair of fireflies in Tokyo, less than 10 feet from Washington, DC

Challenging the status quo

Lyman Spitzer, Jr. at his desk. According to NASA, Spitzer was the first person to propose the idea of ​​putting a large telescope in space and was the driving force behind the development of the Hubble Space Telescope.
Lyman Spitzer, Jr. at his desk. According to NASA, Spitzer was the first person to propose the idea of ​​putting a large telescope in space and was the driving force behind the development of the Hubble Space Telescope.
NASA

Telescopes have allowed us to look out into the universe and examine our place in it. But more than that, telescopes have also allowed us to examine ourselves and our beliefs.

“Before Galileo, there was some understanding that the earth is the center of the universe,” Odom said.

Thanks to the telescope, Galileo was able to challenge the prevailing science with new evidence.

NASA's first chief astronomer, Nancy Grace Roman, the "Mother of Hubble."
NASA’s first chief astronomer, Nancy Grace Roman, the “mother of Hubble”.
NASA

“The telescope was a social tool — it was a tool of social change,” Odom said. “The telescope has had a tremendous impact on how we see ourselves, how we see the universe, and how we see ourselves in that universe — it’s changed everything.”

As telescope technology continues to advance, humans have been able to make even more groundbreaking discoveries and—just as important—to ask more questions.

“The work that the human mind has done to answer the questions it could not have imagined before the development of technology, this process is what makes humans special,” Odom said.

“If we can devote ourselves to a challenge like this, overcome this challenge and get these things up and running and ask these big questions about the nature of time, the nature of the universe, there’s really nothing we can’t do. “

https://nypost.com/2022/04/15/how-the-telescope-became-our-window-into-the-universe/ How the telescope became our window on the universe

JACLYN DIAZ

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