How have telescopes changed over time? They’ve been around for hundreds of years, but you can’t compare them to the monsters we have access to today. The ancient ones were a little like the telescopes I used to use when I was a child. As wonderful as they were, I only used them to gaze at the stars in the night sky.
Never in my wildest dreams would the toy I treasured so dearly be able to help figure out how the universe began. Now they’re even being used to find signs of alien life, along with lots of wonderful things that would make your head explode unless you had an IQ greater than Einstein’s.
The easiest way to explain how telescopes have changed so dramatically over the years is to take you on a journey through time. We’ll start at the beginning when the first one was invented, and we’ll finish by taking a look at the telescopes available to us right now.
The 17th Century (The Telescope’s Inception)
The very first telescope was developed by Hans Lippershey at the start of the 17th century, and even though it was nothing special it’s where it started and why everything is possible today.
Then I’m sure you’ve heard of the name Galileo, who was an Italian physicist, one of the early astronomers smart enough to take the telescope to the next level. In doing so, he discovered things like detailed moon features, sun spots, and the biggest moons of Jupiter.
If you’ve heard of the concave lens, it was invented around this time. Concave means a mirror bends inwards allowing objects to be magnified. Once this was invented the discovery of Jupiter’s belts was made a little over a decade later. Within another decade, the concave lens was replaced with a convex one. This time the mirror bent outwards helping astronomers see things more clearly.
During the middle of the century the most powerful telescope to date was built, and it finally allowed astronomers to see the solar system. Titan was also spotted around this time, which is the moon orbiting Saturn believed to be the most likely place humans will inhabit one day. There wasn’t too much else going on towards the end of the century, except Sir Isaac Newton popping into the picture by building his own telescope.
The 18th And 19th Century
Chromatic aberration refers to a lens unable to bring the various wavelengths of colour to the same focal plane. In other words, it means astronomers won’t be able to see objects clearly, and Newton had stated during the previous century it was a problem that couldn’t be solved. Chester Moore Hall proved this wasn’t true shortly after English mathematician, John Hadley developed a much improved Newtonian telescope.
Replica in the William Herschel Museum, Bath, of a telescope similar to that with which Herschel discovered Uranus.
The superior lens came together by attaching crown and flint, which are different kinds of glass. This set off a chain reaction and the first giant reflector telescope was built. It was 12 metres in length, and although it seems tiny now it was huge in 1789 when William Herschel threw it together based on Newton’s old design.
The 19th century was a time of making things bigger, and it resulted in an important lesson. First of all, the largest telescope that was to be built before the 20th century arrived in 1845. It allowed you to see outwards to the spiral arms formed around galaxies. The important lesson came when Alvan Clark built the largest refracting telescope ever. We realized glass lenses would have to be replaced by mirrors.
The 20th Century
The 20th century is my personal favourite although I’m maybe biased because it’s when I was born. It was certainly a century of amazing discoveries we’re still benefiting from to this day. Radio waves might be invisible to your eyes, but a telescope was designed to pick them up. Radio astronomy is huge, and can detect things like the radiation coming from the Milky Way. You can still visit a 250-foot radio telescope in the UK, which can be pointed anywhere in the sky.
The Hubble Space Telescope as seen from the departing Space Shuttle Atlantis, flying Servicing Mission 4 (STS-125), the sixth and final Hubble mission
This century also saw the birth of perhaps the most well-known telescope in the entire world, the Hubble Space Telescope. It was launched into the blackness of space to stop the earth’s atmosphere from lowering the picture quality of objects we can see. Even though it’s old and living in space, it still gives us a clear picture of the planets and suns in the far reaches of the universe, so we have to thank NASA and ESA for their accomplishment.
We also saw a couple of other things happen towards the end of the century. First of all, we finally had a telescope capable of letting us see gamma rays, which come from objects around the universe sending out very high end energy waves. The WM Keck Observatory was also built in Hawaii. The pair of telescopes sitting nearly 4000 feet above sea level are only second to the biggest optical telescope in the world to this day.
The 21st Century (And Looking Towards The Future)
Even though we’re only just entering the 21st century in the grand scheme of things, there might be 2 main events you’re familiar with. First we seen the arrival of the Herschel Space Observatory, and the name should sound familiar to you at the very least. It has extreme infrared vision, so it will enable us to look at the coldest areas in the universe and receive tangible data back. It was built in 2009, and only a year later we seen something else.
Dome of the GTC at sunset
In the Canary Islands lies the biggest optical telescope in the world, and it’s called the Gran Telescopio Canarias. It is 34-foot in length with a main mirror comprising of 36 hexagonal segments, which happens to contain some of the smoothest surfaces on the planet. It can block out starlight to make less visible planets light up. If you’re looking for it you’ll have to climb up a volcanic peak nearly 7,500 feet above sea level.
There are so many things I’m excited about and all the telescopes will change the world, but let’s finish with the most impressive. Plans for the future European Extremely Large Telescope say the main mirror will have 1,000 hexagonal segments. It will also be 138-foot in length, and when you compare it to the current largest optical telescope it’s not even in the same league. I’m hoping in 2018 we’ll have the sharpest view of the universe we’ve ever seen.
How Have Telescopes Changed Over Time?
Let’s look at the basics because it will be much easier to understand, and we’ll forget about what these changes have meant when it comes to understanding space. There are a trio of things I would like to point out as being important. Telescopes have gotten bigger allowing us to look further into space, which we’ve covered in detail. They’ve also given us a sharper, clearer view of the universe. Both of those things added together have changed everything. Finally, we’ve developed telescopes capable of seeing things invisible to the naked eye.