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Space Astronomy

December 7, 2015

When scientists and engineers first began thinking about space stations, they saw several key uses for them: watching the weather, repairing spacecraft, and prepping missions to the Moon and planets. They also saw the stations as good platforms for telescopes. Astronomers would peer into space from high above Earth’s atmosphere, providing sharp views of the universe.

It turns out, though, that a space station isn’t a great place for a conventional telescope. To see the universe clearly, a telescope needs a highly stable platform. A space station, though, does a lot of jiggling, as thrusters fire and astronauts move around inside.

As technology improved over the decades, the need for telescopes operated by astronauts declined. Instead, it became possible to make telescopes that would fly on their own. Computers would point them, make the observations, and relay them to the ground. Such telescopes could be made quite stable, allowing them to take long looks at each target. And new electronics were reliable enough to last for years, so a space telescope could operate for a long time.

And, indeed, that’s just what happened. NASA and other space agencies have launched dozens of space telescopes. The telescopes have surveyed the sky at just about every wavelength — providing views that are impossible to achieve from the ground.

Even so, several telescopes were launched aboard the space shuttle. We’ll have more about that tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2015

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