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Airborne & Space Telescopes

Hubble Space Telescope as seen during a servicing mission in 2009

Hubble Space Telescope as seen during a servicing mission in 2009 (NASA)

Hubble Space Telescope as seen during a servicing mission in 2009

Hubble Space Telescope as seen during a servicing mission in 2009 (NASA)

Let's Talk Science

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Learn about telescopes that do their work high in Earth’s atmosphere and in space.

Airborne Telescopes

Some telescopes are not located on Earth. Instead, they are sent high into the air above most of the atmosphere. Some, such as the Kuiper Airborne Observatory and the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) are mounted on airplanes. 

Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy
Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (Source: Jim Ross [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons).

They take measurements mid-flight at around 12 km up where there is not much water vapour. Not only does water vapour produce clouds, it also absorbs infrared radiation. This is exactly what these telescopes were designed to observe.

Other airborne telescopes are mounted on high altitude balloons. The two Stratoscopes were used from the 1950s to the 1970s. The Balloon-borne Large Aperture Submillimeter Telescope (BLAST) had three science flights between 2005 and 2010.

BLAST on its launch vehicle in 2005
BLAST on its launch vehicle in 2005 (Source: Mtruch [CC BY-SA] via Wikimedia Commons).

The Sunrise telescope is taking a look at our Sun. To date, it is the largest solar telescope to leave the Earth. This telescope was designed to take off and land during the arctic summer. This was so that it could make uninterrupted observations of the Sun for several days. Both of its scientific flights, which took place in 2009 and 2013, provided astronomers with important data about the Sun’s magnetic field. For all of these airborne telescopes, high altitude balloons have enabled them to reach higher altitudes than airplanes, with Sunrise even reaching up to three times higher!

Space Telescopes

Telescopes have changed how we see the universe. They allow us to learn about the cosmos long before we will be able to explore it in person. But not all telescopes do their work from the ground. At ground level, telescopes need to look up through the Earth’s atmosphere. Our atmosphere can make astronomy difficult. The gases that make up the Earth's atmosphere can distort images as well as absorb some wavelengths of light. As a result, many telescopes are actually launched into space to do their work in orbit. Most famously, the Hubble Space Telescope has been peering at the near-infrared and visible wavelengths for over 25 years. The Chandra X-Ray Observatory observes x-rays. The James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to be launched in 2021. Both of these telescopes can only do their work outside the atmosphere.

Chandra X-ray Observatory
Chandra X-ray Observatory (Source: NASA via Wikimedia Commons).

In the end, it takes a lot of different telescopes observing a lot of different wavelengths to get a complete picture of our universe. But regardless of what part of the spectrum you observe, there's always something new out there to look at and study. So whether you are looking through online images from NASA, or your friend's backyard telescope, new sights are only a peep away!


Goddard Space Flight Center, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (n.d.). James Webb space telescope.

Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (n.d.). Chandra x-ray observatory.

Space Telescope Science Institute (n.d.). Hubblesite.