The best way to take awesome photographs of the night sky is to have as little atmosphere as possible between your telescope and space. You do this a number of ways including putting your telescope on a mountain, in a plane or in space. I won’t cover the ground based telescopes that are perched on mountains all around the world because that is another story but I will mention the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) that NASA operates. This is a large 17 ton telescope mounted in the back of a 747 and Milky-Way.kiwi was lucky enough to have a tour of SOFIA earlier in the year when it was based in Christchurch. To get above as much of the atmosphere as possible they fly it above 40,000ft and achieve some great science including examining the black hole at the centre of our galaxy.
Of course it’s even better to have less atmosphere by flying the telescope above the atmosphere, in orbit. Nearly everyone has heard of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) and the stunning pictures it has sent back has inspired many people into astronomy and opened up a whole universe to world. It is a truely remarkable instrument that has pushed our boundaries of understanding the cosmos. It was launched in 1990 and after a glitch in the optics was rectified a few years later it started churning out awesome shots of the skies. It is the most famous of the space based telescopes but it is certainly not the only space instrument being used by scientists to understand what is out there. At last count there were around 34 different space instruments collecting all sorts of data from gamma waves to visible light to radio waves, all building different pictures of the universe for different reasons. Below is a quick round up of the current space telescopes operating in and around the visible spectrum (that I could find):
Hubble Space Telescope. This was launched in 1990 and contains a huge 2.4m mirror. The telescope orbits at about 580km. Link
Microvariability and Oscillation of Stars (MOST). This is a Canadian telescope that has a 15cm Maksutov and was launched in 2003. The role of the telescope is to monitor the variability of stars. It orbits at about 820km in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Link
SWIFT Gamma Ray Burst Mission. This is operated by NASA and was launched in 2004. It’s role is to study Gamma Ray Bursts (GRB). The Observatory discovers about 100 GRBs per year and recently took the below image of the first observation of ultraviolet light from a gravitational wave event when two neutron stars blew up. SWIFT operates between 585-604km in LEO. Link
Kepler telescope. Kepler is operated by NASA and is a telescope designed to find Earth sized planets around other stars. It was launched in 2009 and has discovered 2341 confirmed planets. The telescope is a 0.95m Schmidt. Kepler is in a heliocentric orbit trailing the Earth. Link
Near Earth Object Surveillance Satellite (NEOSSat). This is operated by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and was launched in 2013. It’s job is to scan space near the sun looking for asteroids. The instrument is similar to MOST, with a 15cm Maksutov. It orbits at about 800km. Link
Gaia. This telescope is operated by the European Space Agency (ESA). It’s job is to catalog 1 billion objects like stars and planets in 3 dimensions. It was launched in 2013 and has a three mirror anastigmat. Gaia orbits in Lissajous orbit based on the L2 Lagrangian point of the Earth/Sun. Link
Astrosat. This is operated by the Indian Space Research Organisation and was launched in 2015. It has a 40cm mirror in the telescope for ultra violet light imaging. It’s role is to monitor various objects based on research requirements with a number of instruments. The orbit is a 650km geocentric. Link
The next couple of years will the see the launch of some more space telescopes including the James Web Space Telescope, so get prepared for more exciting images.