The Hubble Space Telescope

The Telescope: Putting the Sky Within Reach

November 02, 2010
by Lindsey Chapman
For a small handful of astronauts, space is a realm to be experienced firsthand. For the rest of us, we’re left to rely on pictures, news reports and a device that has been bringing people closer to the heavens for centuries: the telescope.

Who made it?

The exact origin of the telescope is uncertain. People have commonly accepted that the first refracting telescope was created in the Netherlands in 1608, in 2008, the BBC reported on research in the magazine History Today that suggested that early models may have actually been made in Spain.

Historian Nick Pelling said the inventor might be a man named Juan Roget, a spectacle maker who died between 1617 and 1624. Roget actually came from a family of spectacle makers, and was credited for inventing the telescope in a 1609 book published by Italian Girolamo Sirtori. It’s possible the idea of the telescope “traveled” to the Netherlands after being pioneered by Roget.

The Galileo Project explains that the telescope “was the product of craftsmen. For that reason, much of its origin is inaccessible to us since craftsmen were by and large illiterate and therefore historically often invisible.”

The View of the World

Telescopes sparked an early controversy when Galileo began using one 400 years ago to help prove that the Earth is not the center of the universe. He tracked Venus for months, finding phases that proved the planet orbited the sun, not Earth. His findings were challenging the view of the world, and he was punished harshly for it. After being summoned to Rome by the pope, an inquisition found him “vehemently suspect of heresy,” and he spent the remainder of his life under house arrest. His trial signaled a debate between the church and scientific community that has lasted centuries.

A Scientific Revolution

The telescope was one of the primary instruments of the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. The events fueled by Galileo led to continued improvements in the telescope, and they were made stronger through different combinations of lenses and mirrors. Eventually, scientists had devices powerful enough to see Jupiter, and they were also able to verify Galileo’s claims about Venus. In 1611, Johannes Kepler modified the telescope so that images were viewed right side up instead of upside down.

Telescope models continued to grow and change over the years; according to the Galileo Project, even Isaac Newton helped to make the instruments better. When he published his paper on light and color, Newton illustrated that white light is made of colored light with different refrangibility. This fact, combined with a curved lens, resulted in images like a planet surrounded by circles of varying colors. Newton fixed the problem using a mirror and ultimately created the first reflecting telescope.

Edwin Hubble

Another influential figure in the world of telescopes was Edwin Hubble, the astronomer for whom NASA’s famous telescope is named. After a year of duty in World War I, Hubble began working at the Mount Wilson Observatory in California where he photographed the sky through the Hooker telescope, then the most powerful telescope in the world. Hubble identified Cepheid stars within the Andromeda Nebula, and proved that they were outside of the Milky Way galaxy; he subsequently identified other galaxies, affirming for the first time that our galaxy is one of millions within the universe.

Today the Hubble Telescope serves as a legacy to the great astronomer. The Hubble mission began in 1990 when the telescope was launched to orbit beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. It has since provided hundreds of thousands of images and helped researchers determine the age of the universe.

Powerful Telescopes

Over the years, the ability of telescopes to peer deeper into space has grown tremendously. Popular Mechanics lists some of the most powerful telescopes in the world, including the Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona, the Spitzer Space Telescope, the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope and most recently, the Kepler telescope which launched into space in March 2009. More are coming in the future, such as the Giant Magellan Telescope, set to begin construction in 2011, and the James Webb Space Telescope, expected in 2013.

International Year of Astronomy

To celebrate Galileo’s achievements and other discoveries in the astronomy field, 2009 was named the International Year of Astronomy.

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