A space telescope or space observatory is an instrument located in outer space to observe distant planets, galaxies and other astronomical objects. Space telescopes avoid many of the problems of ground-based observatories, such as light pollution and distortion of electromagnetic radiation (scintillation). In addition, ultraviolet frequencies, X-rays and gamma rays are blocked by the Earth's atmosphere, so they can only be observed from space.
Theorized by Lyman Spitzer in 1946, the first operational space telescopes were the American Orbiting Astronomical Observatory OAO-2 launched in 1968 and the Soviet Orion 1 ultraviolet telescope aboard space station Salyut 1 in 1971.
In 1946, American theoretical astrophysicist Lyman Spitzer was the first to conceive the idea of a telescope in outer space, 11 years before the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, Sputnik 1, in October 1957.
Spitzer's proposal called for a large telescope that would not be hindered by Earth's atmosphere. After lobbying in the 1960s and 70s for such a system to be built, Spitzer's vision ultimately materialized into the Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched on April 24, 1990 by the Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-31).
Performing astronomy from ground-based observatories on Earth is limited by the filtering and distortion of electromagnetic radiation (scintillation or twinkling) due to the atmosphere. Some terrestrial telescopes can reduce atmospheric effects with adaptive optics. A telescope orbiting Earth outside the atmosphere is subject neither to twinkling nor to light pollution from artificial light sources on Earth. As a result, the angular resolution of space telescopes is often much smaller than a ground-based telescope with a similar aperture.
Space-based astronomy is even more important for frequency ranges which are outside the optical 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 Earth, and has reached its current importance in astronomy only due to orbiting X-ray telescopes such as the Chandra observatory and the XMM-Newton observatory. Infrared and ultraviolet are also largely blocked.
However, all these advantages do come with a price. Space telescopes are much more expensive to build than ground-based telescopes. Due to their location, space telescopes are also extremely difficult to maintain. The Hubble Space Telescope was serviced by the Space Shuttle while many other space telescopes cannot be serviced at all.
Space observatories can generally be divided into two classes: missions which map the entire sky (surveys), and observatories which focus on selected astronomical objects or parts of the sky.
Many space observatories have already completed their missions, while others continue operating, and still others are planned for the future. Satellites have been launched and operated by NASA, ISRO, ESA, Japanese Space Agency and the Soviet space program later succeeded by Roskosmos of Russia.
- Earth observation satellite
- List of space telescopes
- List of telescope types
- Timeline of artificial satellites and space probes
- Timeline of telescopes, observatories, and observing technology
- Ultraviolet astronomy
- X-ray astronomy satellites
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