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Space telescopes explore the universe in orbit around the Earth.


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Space telescopes are instrument in outer space which are used for observation of the universe, distant planets, galaxies, and other outer space objects.

Introduction to Space telescopes.

Space Telescopes.
Space telescope.
Space Observatories and their wavelength working range.
Space telescopes.
Space telescopes and their wavelength working range.
Spitzer, Hubble Space telescopes.
Spitzer, Hubble Space telescopes and XMM with their most important parts depicted.

A large number of Space telescopes have been launched into orbit, and most of them have greatly enhanced our knowledge of the cosmos. Performing astronomy from the Earth's surface is limited by the filtering and distortion of electromagnetic radiation due to the Earth's atmosphere. This makes it desirable to place astrononomical observation devices into space. As a telescope orbits the Earth outside the atmosphere it is subject neither to twinkling (distortion due to thermal turbulences of the air) nor to light pollution from artificial light sources on the Earth. Some terrestrial telescopes (such as the Very Large Telescope) can counter turbulences with the help of their novel adaptive optics.

But space-based astronomy is even more important for frequency ranges which are outside of the optic window and the radio window, the only two wavelength ranges of the electromagnetic spectrum that are not severely attenuated by the atmosphere. For example, X-ray astronomy is nearly impossible when done from the Earth, and has reached its current important stand within astronomy only due to orbiting satellites with X-ray telescopes such as the Chandra observatory or XMM-Newton observatory. Infrared and ultraviolet are also greatly blocked.

Space observatories can generally be divided into two classes: missions which map the entire sky (surveys), and observatories which make observations of chosen parts of the sky.

Many space observatories have already completed their missions, while others are still operating. Satellites have been launched by NASA, ESA and the Japanese Space Agency.

NASA's Great Observatories

Satellites belonging to NASA's "Great Observatories" program:

  • The Space Telescope (ST), now known as Hubble Space Telescope (HST) is the optical Great Observatory. Launched April 24, 1990. ESA (the European Space Agency) is NASA's partner in the HST project.
  • The gamma ray Observatory (GRO), since renamed to The Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory, had to be disposed of after several years of productive life. Its gyroscopes began to fail and when it was down to its last gyroscope, the choice was to risk losing control or destroying the observatory. NASA de-orbited the bus-sized satellite into the Pacific Ocean in 2000.
  • X-rays are also represented in the Great Observatories, with the Chandra X-ray Observatory (CXO), renamed (from AXAF - Advanced X-Ray Astrophysics Facility) in honor of the great Indian astrophysicist Chandrasekhar. This has been used to great effect to study distant galaxies and is still operational.
  • The Space Infrared Telescope Facility, (SIRTF), launched on August 24, 2003 is the fourth observatory, and is called the Spitzer space telescope (SST).

Other notable space observatories

ou* IRAS, which performed an all-sky survey in infrared, as well as discovering disks of dust and gas around many nearby stars, such as Fomalhaut, Vega and Beta Pictoris. This ceased functioning in 1983 and has since re-entered the atmosphere.

  • Astron (spacecraft), a Soviet ultraviolet telescope, operated from 1983 to 1989.
  • Granat, a Soviet x-ray and gamma-ray telescope complex, operated from 1983 to 1998.
  • ISO (Infrared Space Observatory), an ESA (European Space Agency) mission, followed IRAS and carried out observations at infra-red wavelengths.
  • COROT space telescope, a French Space Agency/ESA observatory that was launched in December 2006. It is the first mission to search for rocky worlds around other stars.
  • IUE (International Ultraviolet Explorer), an ESA/NASA/UK observatory that was launched in 1978 with a planned lifetime of 3 years. It was eventually switched off in 1996.
  • SOHO is a solar observatory that is currently operational and used for the study of the Sun's corona and magnetic environments. SOHO has revolutionised our knowledge of the Sun.
  • SCISAT-1 is a Canadian satellite which observes Earth's upper atmosphere with an optical Fourier transform infrared spectrometer.
  • Uhuru, the first (1970) X-Ray space observatory.
  • HEAO (High Energy Astronomy Observatories) 1 and 2, subsequent (1977, 1978) X-Ray space observatories.
  • Hipparcos was a satellite for measuring stellar parallax. Despite significant operational problems, it revised the Cepheid variable star distance scale to great accuracy and has been invaluable for all branches of observational astronomy by furnishing scientists with extremely accurate "standard candles" for measuring distances.
  • MOST was launched in 2003 for the Canadian Space Agency and it is the smallest space telescope in the world, being the size of a small chest or a very large suitcase. It is expected to last five years.
  • The ASTRO-F Space Telescope, built by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (though with some Korean and European involvement) was launched in February 2006, and will make a deep map of the whole sky at mid infrared and far infrared wavelengths.
  • The Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Mission was launched in 2004 to study detect and study gamma ray bursts.

Future Space telescopes.

  • The Herschel Space Observatory will be launched by the European Space Agency in 2008 to study the far infrared and submillimeter wavelengths.
  • The James Webb Space Telescope is intended to replace the Hubble Space Telescope and is planned for launch no earlier than June 2013.


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