While the largest telescopes are found on Earth, the best telescopes are found far above us in orbit. The biggest issues for telescopes are weather, daylight, air pollution, and light pollution. The best way to nullify all these issues is to put a telescope in space. Space telescopes have given us some of the clearest, farthest and most spectacular views of the universe to date.
Currently, there are fourteen major space telescopes in orbit around the Earth run by NASA and the ESA. Over the decades, there have been many more that have been launched whose missions are over, and there are a few more in the works to be launched in the future. Space telescopes are very much an ongoing phase of our space exploration.
What most know…
Most people are most familiar with the famous Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched many years ago. The Hubble Space Telescope continues to help unravel the mysteries of the universe as well as giving NASA a massive databank of stunning deep space images to showcase.
Hubble is known for its visible-light images and works in physically showing people pictures of what is out there in the cosmos, but there are many other kinds of space telescopes up there as well. These other telescopes include UV, infrared, x-ray, and gamma-ray viewers. Visible light is one small part of a large spectrum of rays and waves that can be parsed and decoded.
Space telescopes are essentially satellites equipped with observation equipment used to take measurements of the universe and send them back to Earth to be analyzed. They are launched into space like any other satellite, and the long-term missions, such as the major space telescopes, are powered by solar panels.
The largest, most famous, and longest lasting space telescopes are those belonging to the Great Observatories program run by NASA which includes the major space telescopes.
The Major Space Telescopes
Nasa launched a program called the Great Observatories program in conjunction with the European Space Agency (ESA), which oversees the major space telescopes in orbit. While there are over a dozen telescopes above the Earth, there are four major telescopes, which are some of the most famous. These include the Hubble Space Telescope, the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, and the Spitzer Space Telescope.
These four telescopes are considered the pillars of the orbital telescope network and continue to operate to this day. They have given us dozens of discoveries over the years and have peered to the very edge of the universe and continue to push the boundaries of how people see the universe today.
Despite these being the four most famous and renowned orbital telescopes, the largest telescope ever launched was the Herschel Space Observatory. Herschel was roughly one and a half times larger than the Hubble Space Telescope but was only in operation for four short years between 2009 and 2013.
The Herschel Space Observatory was discontinued after running out of vital liquid helium, which was used to cool the unit down from the brutal temperatures in the vacuum. Once the coolant depleted completely, the telescope would not function properly, and the mission was ended.
The four major space telescopes continue to serve the scientific community from orbit today, covering every range of the entire spectrum of wavelengths. From visible light to measuring the cosmic background radiation, these telescopes are scanning our universe with unrivaled precision and focus day after day.
First Telescope in Space
The Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990, but it was not the first telescope in space, not by a long shot. While Hubble would turn out to be the most successful telescope to be launched into orbit, the first was launched in the waning days of 1968.
The first telescope to be launched into space was the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory 1 (OAO-1). This unit was launched in 1966 but failed to deploy properly once in orbit. The mission was canceled after a power failure resulted in the telescope being unable to boot up.
The first successful telescope launched into orbit was the successor to OAO-1, which was named OAO-2. The OAO-2 was launched into low Earth orbit on December 7, 1968, and laid the groundwork for all future space telescopes to come. The OAO-2 mainly gathered ultraviolet data and was active for five years.
These first space telescopes were launched at the height of the space race with the Soviet Union, and OAO-2 was launched just six months before the Apollo moon missions. It was a time when satellites, men, and telescopes were being launched into space at a breakneck pace, which shaped the future of space exploration forever.
The Orbiting Astronomical Observatory 2 is part of this legacy. While it will not get its due place in the history books next to Sputnik and Apollo, it was a pillar of the space race and orbital telescope technology.
First Famous Space Telescope
The Hubble Space Telescope changed the orbital telescope landscape forever. This is the space telescope that comes to mind first and for a good reason. Hubble has assisted on some of the wildest and most amazing discoveries to be made in the past three decades, furthering the fields of physic, astronomy, and cosmology forever.
When was the Hubble Launched?
Hubble was launched into orbit in 1990 by the space shuttle discovery. It has continued to operate above our heads for the past thirty years giving us priceless information and data used by the scientific community.
Discoveries of the Hubble Telescope
Hubble has helped discover the age of the universe, the size of our galaxy, the expansion of the universe, and so much more. In addition to being an invaluable tool for the scientific community, Hubble has also produced some of the most famous deep space images, which is what launched it to public fame.
Hubble can do all these amazing things because of its incredible raw power. The Hubble Space Telescope can peer almost infinitely into space and has been credited with seeing objects over thirteen billion lightyears away, which is almost as far as the universe is old.
The astute stargazer will even be able to see Hubble zipping overhead if they are in the right place at the right time. Hubble circles the Earth about every ninety minutes, and if you are in the right latitude zone around the equator, you could catch a glimpse of the satellite as it flies by overhead.
In fact, you can see all sorts of satellites if the skies are dark. If you allow your eyes to adjust to the darkness and look up, you will be able to see satellites moving overhead.
Satellites appear like small stars. They are bright and move in seemingly straight lines overhead throughout the night. You can tell them apart from planes because satellites do not blink or flash with lights, and they move much faster than actual stars.
Despite Hubble’s accomplishments and fame, it is reaching the end of its lifespan. New technology and time have begun to render the Hubble telescope less and less effective. However, the future looks bright.
Looking Forward to the Future
The telescope that is in development to replace the Hubble Space Telescope as the premier orbital telescope above Earth is the James Webb Space Telescope. NASA is touting the upcoming James Web Telescope as the largest and grandest space telescope ever to be developed.
The James Webb telescope should build upon the titanic strides Hubble made in the orbital telescope space as well as in the scientific discoveries it made. NASA is collaborating with the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency to make sure that this is the most successful space telescope made to date.
Video of the James Webb Space Telescope From NASA
It is going to be one hundred times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope, which is simply mind-boggling. NASA is planning on putting it in orbit much farther out from Earth to give it the clearest and widest views of deep space. Astronomers are hoping to be able to peer into the very heart of the universe and the first moments directly following the Big Bang with James Webb.
The entire scientific community is excited for the James Webb Space Telescope to launch and begin its mission. Currently, NASA is estimating a launch date in the first half of 2021.
With the development of the James Webb Space Telescope as well as the maturing of private space agencies such as Space X, Boeing, and Virgin Galactic, we are about to embark upon a new golden age of space exploration and space flight. The future of this field is extremely bright and promising.
Astronomers and astrophysicists are confident that the next generation of space telescopes are going to give us new information that will be used to crack the mysteries surrounding the true age of the universe, the Big Bang and the expansion of the universe. These are all fields that have been created, expanded on continue today only because of space telescopes.
Oh, and they’re also all of those pretty pictures too.