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Loving the Stars- Telescopes, from Galileo to James Webb

Today’s post is from science reference librarian  Margaret Clifton.  She is also the author of Saving Energy: The Fall Back Position, Stars in his Eyes and Sun Spots this Summer

I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night – Sarah Willams (1837-1868)*

Galileo offering his telescope to three women (possibly Urania and attendants) seated on a throne; he is pointing toward the sky where some of his astronomical discoveries are depicted

In February of 2010 I wrote a post  for Inside Adams titled “Stars in His Eyes” about the 1610 Sidereus nuncius (Starry Messenger) by Galileo Galilei. This was the small book in which Galileo described his adventures with the newly invented telescope. Having read descriptions of the then recently invented ‘spyglass,’ Galileo set about devising his own, creating prototypes and making observations of the Moon, stars, and most importantly, what he referred to as the four little ‘stars’ spotted near Jupiter. These he described and illustrated in the Sidereus nuncius, deducing by their movement and positions that they were in fact not stars, but moons – satellites of Jupiter revolving around the larger body in a regular and predictable orbit.

Of course the implication of this discovery, that celestial bodies revolved around objects other than the Earth, caused Galileo a little bit of trouble before all was said and done, but the value of the telescope as an instrument of scientific truth has become evident and it continues to this day to reveal to us hidden corners of our Universe.

Around 1608 Hans Lippershey of Holland created some of the earliest telescopes  that were of a refracting design with a convex shaped object lens and a concave shaped eyepiece. This was the design that Galileo employed. Johannes Kepler also designed telescopes with compound eyepieces, and Christiaan Huygens built bigger and more powerful, but less practical ones. Isaac Newton came up with a reflecting telescope which incorporated a mirror and had an eyepiece mounted on the side. Developments of reflecting telescopes continued by incorporating larger mirrors, coatings on the mirrors, and more refined optics, which all of the large optical research telescopes around the world use today. If you are interested in learning more about Galileo and the history of telescopes see our webcast of Galileo: 400 Years of the Telescope with NASA scientist Michelle Thaller.

Hubble Space Telescope (HST) being deployed during the STS 31 flight. Image from NSSDC Photo Gallery

In the 20th century radio astronomy was born and telescopes were   developed for other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum beyond the visible wavelengths. Cosmic microwave background radiation was discovered in 1964 and radio telescopes are used to study it from space. The telescopes of today are used in infrared astronomy, ultraviolet astronomy, X-ray astronomy, and gamma ray astronomy. Many of these are space-based telescopes, such as the Hubble Space Telescope which was carried into orbit  by the space shuttle Discovery on April 25, 1990.

The Hubble, still in orbit and operation, has four main instruments that operate in the near ultraviolet, visible, and near infrared parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. Hubble observations represent quantum breakthroughs in astrophysics, including an accurate determination of the rate of expansion of the Universe. Though its last servicing mission was completed in 2009, it is expected to function at least until 2014. In 2009 Dave Leckrone, retired senior project scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope Program, spoke at the Library about Hubble’s final mission in his lecture- Hubble: A New Beginning.

Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), is scheduled for launch in 2018. The JWST is optimized for observations in the infrared. Its main goals are to study the birth and evolution of galaxies and the formation of stars and planets. It will observe some of the most distant objects in the Universe, currently beyond the reach of existing ground and space-based telescopes. It will be a ‘starry messenger’ of the 21st century, revealing the hidden secrets and history of our Universe, and showing us as yet unseen phenomena, as Galileo’s simple ‘telescopio’ discovered the moons of Jupiter over 400 years ago, teaching us all to love the stars and not to be fearful of the night.

Coincidentally aligned spiral galaxies. (NGC 3314). From the NSSDC Photo Gallery

If you are interested in learning more join us on March 21,2012 from 11:30 am to 12:30 pm, in Pickford Theater, Madison Building, where we will are hosting a lecture about the James Webb Space Telescope with NASA Scientist Amber Straughn.

[Update 2/22/2013-  you can view this lecture from the Library’s webcast page and Youtube Channel Topics in Science]

*Quote is from the poem The Old Astronomer published in Twilight Hours by Sarah Willimas (1868) and later published as The Old Astronomer and His Pupil in Best Loved Poems of  the American People (c1936, 1957).


  1. A Nikhwai
    March 16, 2012 at 3:15 pm

    It made me think how far we came and even further we still have to go. Every bit is quite amazing and exciting.

  2. almoros idriss
    March 17, 2012 at 4:21 pm

    God bless our heros the great scientists who have been paying their greatest efforts, expanding our minds in understanding our planet the mother earth and the universe! Thank You so much and love You all and I will ever be praying for You, your great families and great nations!

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