Hubble Space Telescope as seen during a servicing mission in 2009

Airborne & Space Telescopes

Let's Talk Science

Summary

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

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!

My Career

René Doyon

Astronomer and professor at the Université de Montréal

To become an astronomer, I completed an undergraduate degree in physics at the Université de Montréal, and a Master degree in astronomy. I completed my PhD in astronomy at Imperial College London, in England. 

I am interested in studying exoplanets, which are planets that orbit stars other than our Sun. To study them, my team and I are building specialized instruments that are installed on the best telescopes in the world.

For example, I am currently working on an instrument called the Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS). This instrument will be installed on the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be launch in space in 2021. With this instrument, we hope to determine if there are exoplanets with Earth-like atmospheres, on which life as we know it could have developed.

I also work on two other instruments called SPIRou and NIRPS. SPIRou was installed in 2018 on the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope in Hawaii. The NIRPS will be installed in 2020 on the ESO 3.6 metre telescope in Chile. One of the most important missions of these two instruments will be to find potentially habitable planets around stars that are smaller and less bright than the Sun called red dwarfs

On these projects, I need to work in a team with people who are just as passionate that I am. This includes astronomers, engineers, technicians, administrative assistants, etc. This is why I decided in 2014 to create the Institute for research on exoplanets (iREx). Here more than 40 people work towards the same objective - to find potentially inhabited planets.

I am also the director of the Observatoire du Mont-Mégantic (OMM) which houses the largest telescope in north-eastern America. Many instruments built for the largest telescopes in the world are first tested here in Canada. As well, many great Canadian astronomers now work around the world, thanks to the unique training they got at OMM.

I really like my work as an astronomer. I consider myself very lucky to live in a time when we have the technology necessary to have reasonable hope of answering one of humanity’s greatest questions, “Are we alone in the Universe?”

René Doyon
René Doyon at work (©René Doyon. Used with permission).

 

References

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.