Skip to Content
OpenStax Logo
Astronomy

6.5 Observations outside Earth’s Atmosphere

Astronomy6.5 Observations outside Earth’s Atmosphere
Buy book
  1. Preface
  2. 1 Science and the Universe: A Brief Tour
    1. Introduction
    2. 1.1 The Nature of Astronomy
    3. 1.2 The Nature of Science
    4. 1.3 The Laws of Nature
    5. 1.4 Numbers in Astronomy
    6. 1.5 Consequences of Light Travel Time
    7. 1.6 A Tour of the Universe
    8. 1.7 The Universe on the Large Scale
    9. 1.8 The Universe of the Very Small
    10. 1.9 A Conclusion and a Beginning
    11. For Further Exploration
  3. 2 Observing the Sky: The Birth of Astronomy
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 2.1 The Sky Above
    3. 2.2 Ancient Astronomy
    4. 2.3 Astrology and Astronomy
    5. 2.4 The Birth of Modern Astronomy
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  4. 3 Orbits and Gravity
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 3.1 The Laws of Planetary Motion
    3. 3.2 Newton’s Great Synthesis
    4. 3.3 Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation
    5. 3.4 Orbits in the Solar System
    6. 3.5 Motions of Satellites and Spacecraft
    7. 3.6 Gravity with More Than Two Bodies
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  5. 4 Earth, Moon, and Sky
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 4.1 Earth and Sky
    3. 4.2 The Seasons
    4. 4.3 Keeping Time
    5. 4.4 The Calendar
    6. 4.5 Phases and Motions of the Moon
    7. 4.6 Ocean Tides and the Moon
    8. 4.7 Eclipses of the Sun and Moon
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  6. 5 Radiation and Spectra
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 5.1 The Behavior of Light
    3. 5.2 The Electromagnetic Spectrum
    4. 5.3 Spectroscopy in Astronomy
    5. 5.4 The Structure of the Atom
    6. 5.5 Formation of Spectral Lines
    7. 5.6 The Doppler Effect
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  7. 6 Astronomical Instruments
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 6.1 Telescopes
    3. 6.2 Telescopes Today
    4. 6.3 Visible-Light Detectors and Instruments
    5. 6.4 Radio Telescopes
    6. 6.5 Observations outside Earth’s Atmosphere
    7. 6.6 The Future of Large Telescopes
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  8. 7 Other Worlds: An Introduction to the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 7.1 Overview of Our Planetary System
    3. 7.2 Composition and Structure of Planets
    4. 7.3 Dating Planetary Surfaces
    5. 7.4 Origin of the Solar System
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  9. 8 Earth as a Planet
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 8.1 The Global Perspective
    3. 8.2 Earth’s Crust
    4. 8.3 Earth’s Atmosphere
    5. 8.4 Life, Chemical Evolution, and Climate Change
    6. 8.5 Cosmic Influences on the Evolution of Earth
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  10. 9 Cratered Worlds
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 9.1 General Properties of the Moon
    3. 9.2 The Lunar Surface
    4. 9.3 Impact Craters
    5. 9.4 The Origin of the Moon
    6. 9.5 Mercury
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  11. 10 Earthlike Planets: Venus and Mars
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 10.1 The Nearest Planets: An Overview
    3. 10.2 The Geology of Venus
    4. 10.3 The Massive Atmosphere of Venus
    5. 10.4 The Geology of Mars
    6. 10.5 Water and Life on Mars
    7. 10.6 Divergent Planetary Evolution
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  12. 11 The Giant Planets
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 11.1 Exploring the Outer Planets
    3. 11.2 The Giant Planets
    4. 11.3 Atmospheres of the Giant Planets
    5. Key Terms
    6. Summary
    7. For Further Exploration
    8. Collaborative Group Activities
    9. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  13. 12 Rings, Moons, and Pluto
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 12.1 Ring and Moon Systems Introduced
    3. 12.2 The Galilean Moons of Jupiter
    4. 12.3 Titan and Triton
    5. 12.4 Pluto and Charon
    6. 12.5 Planetary Rings
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  14. 13 Comets and Asteroids: Debris of the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 13.1 Asteroids
    3. 13.2 Asteroids and Planetary Defense
    4. 13.3 The “Long-Haired” Comets
    5. 13.4 The Origin and Fate of Comets and Related Objects
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  15. 14 Cosmic Samples and the Origin of the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 14.1 Meteors
    3. 14.2 Meteorites: Stones from Heaven
    4. 14.3 Formation of the Solar System
    5. 14.4 Comparison with Other Planetary Systems
    6. 14.5 Planetary Evolution
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  16. 15 The Sun: A Garden-Variety Star
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 15.1 The Structure and Composition of the Sun
    3. 15.2 The Solar Cycle
    4. 15.3 Solar Activity above the Photosphere
    5. 15.4 Space Weather
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  17. 16 The Sun: A Nuclear Powerhouse
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 16.1 Sources of Sunshine: Thermal and Gravitational Energy
    3. 16.2 Mass, Energy, and the Theory of Relativity
    4. 16.3 The Solar Interior: Theory
    5. 16.4 The Solar Interior: Observations
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  18. 17 Analyzing Starlight
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 17.1 The Brightness of Stars
    3. 17.2 Colors of Stars
    4. 17.3 The Spectra of Stars (and Brown Dwarfs)
    5. 17.4 Using Spectra to Measure Stellar Radius, Composition, and Motion
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  19. 18 The Stars: A Celestial Census
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 18.1 A Stellar Census
    3. 18.2 Measuring Stellar Masses
    4. 18.3 Diameters of Stars
    5. 18.4 The H–R Diagram
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  20. 19 Celestial Distances
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 19.1 Fundamental Units of Distance
    3. 19.2 Surveying the Stars
    4. 19.3 Variable Stars: One Key to Cosmic Distances
    5. 19.4 The H–R Diagram and Cosmic Distances
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  21. 20 Between the Stars: Gas and Dust in Space
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 20.1 The Interstellar Medium
    3. 20.2 Interstellar Gas
    4. 20.3 Cosmic Dust
    5. 20.4 Cosmic Rays
    6. 20.5 The Life Cycle of Cosmic Material
    7. 20.6 Interstellar Matter around the Sun
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  22. 21 The Birth of Stars and the Discovery of Planets outside the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 21.1 Star Formation
    3. 21.2 The H–R Diagram and the Study of Stellar Evolution
    4. 21.3 Evidence That Planets Form around Other Stars
    5. 21.4 Planets beyond the Solar System: Search and Discovery
    6. 21.5 Exoplanets Everywhere: What We Are Learning
    7. 21.6 New Perspectives on Planet Formation
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  23. 22 Stars from Adolescence to Old Age
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 22.1 Evolution from the Main Sequence to Red Giants
    3. 22.2 Star Clusters
    4. 22.3 Checking Out the Theory
    5. 22.4 Further Evolution of Stars
    6. 22.5 The Evolution of More Massive Stars
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  24. 23 The Death of Stars
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 23.1 The Death of Low-Mass Stars
    3. 23.2 Evolution of Massive Stars: An Explosive Finish
    4. 23.3 Supernova Observations
    5. 23.4 Pulsars and the Discovery of Neutron Stars
    6. 23.5 The Evolution of Binary Star Systems
    7. 23.6 The Mystery of the Gamma-Ray Bursts
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  25. 24 Black Holes and Curved Spacetime
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 24.1 Introducing General Relativity
    3. 24.2 Spacetime and Gravity
    4. 24.3 Tests of General Relativity
    5. 24.4 Time in General Relativity
    6. 24.5 Black Holes
    7. 24.6 Evidence for Black Holes
    8. 24.7 Gravitational Wave Astronomy
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  26. 25 The Milky Way Galaxy
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 25.1 The Architecture of the Galaxy
    3. 25.2 Spiral Structure
    4. 25.3 The Mass of the Galaxy
    5. 25.4 The Center of the Galaxy
    6. 25.5 Stellar Populations in the Galaxy
    7. 25.6 The Formation of the Galaxy
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  27. 26 Galaxies
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 26.1 The Discovery of Galaxies
    3. 26.2 Types of Galaxies
    4. 26.3 Properties of Galaxies
    5. 26.4 The Extragalactic Distance Scale
    6. 26.5 The Expanding Universe
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  28. 27 Active Galaxies, Quasars, and Supermassive Black Holes
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 27.1 Quasars
    3. 27.2 Supermassive Black Holes: What Quasars Really Are
    4. 27.3 Quasars as Probes of Evolution in the Universe
    5. Key Terms
    6. Summary
    7. For Further Exploration
    8. Collaborative Group Activities
    9. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  29. 28 The Evolution and Distribution of Galaxies
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 28.1 Observations of Distant Galaxies
    3. 28.2 Galaxy Mergers and Active Galactic Nuclei
    4. 28.3 The Distribution of Galaxies in Space
    5. 28.4 The Challenge of Dark Matter
    6. 28.5 The Formation and Evolution of Galaxies and Structure in the Universe
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  30. 29 The Big Bang
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 29.1 The Age of the Universe
    3. 29.2 A Model of the Universe
    4. 29.3 The Beginning of the Universe
    5. 29.4 The Cosmic Microwave Background
    6. 29.5 What Is the Universe Really Made Of?
    7. 29.6 The Inflationary Universe
    8. 29.7 The Anthropic Principle
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  31. 30 Life in the Universe
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 30.1 The Cosmic Context for Life
    3. 30.2 Astrobiology
    4. 30.3 Searching for Life beyond Earth
    5. 30.4 The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  32. A | How to Study for an Introductory Astronomy Class
  33. B | Astronomy Websites, Images, and Apps
  34. C | Scientific Notation
  35. D | Units Used in Science
  36. E | Some Useful Constants for Astronomy
  37. F | Physical and Orbital Data for the Planets
  38. G | Selected Moons of the Planets
  39. H | Future Total Eclipses
  40. I | The Nearest Stars, Brown Dwarfs, and White Dwarfs
  41. J | The Brightest Twenty Stars
  42. K | The Chemical Elements
  43. L | The Constellations
  44. M | Star Chart and Sky Event Resources
  45. Index

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • List the advantages of making astronomical observations from space
  • Explain the importance of the Hubble Space Telescope
  • Describe some of the major space-based observatories astronomers use

Earth’s atmosphere blocks most radiation at wavelengths shorter than visible light, so we can only make direct ultraviolet, X-ray, and gamma ray observations from space (though indirect gamma ray observations can be made from Earth). Getting above the distorting effects of the atmosphere is also an advantage at visible and infrared wavelengths. The stars don’t “twinkle” in space, so the amount of detail you can observe is limited only by the size of your instrument. On the other hand, it is expensive to place telescopes into space, and repairs can present a major challenge. This is why astronomers continue to build telescopes for use on the ground as well as for launching into space.

Airborne and Space Infrared Telescopes

Water vapor, the main source of atmospheric interference for making infrared observations, is concentrated in the lower part of Earth’s atmosphere. For this reason, a gain of even a few hundred meters in elevation can make an important difference in the quality of an infared observatory site. Given the limitations of high mountains, most of which attract clouds and violent storms, and the fact that the ability of humans to perform complex tasks degrades at high altitudes, it was natural for astronomers to investigate the possibility of observing infrared waves from airplanes and ultimately from space.

Infrared observations from airplanes have been made since the 1960s, starting with a 15-centimeter telescope on board a Learjet. From 1974 through 1995, NASA operated a 0.9-meter airborne telescope flying regularly out of the Ames Research Center south of San Francisco. Observing from an altitude of 12 kilometers, the telescope was above 99% of the atmospheric water vapor. More recently, NASA (in partnership with the German Aerospace Center) has constructed a much larger 2.5-meter telescope, called the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), which flies in a modified Boeing 747SP (Figure 6.23).

Image of the interior of the SOFIA aircraft, showing the massive telescope and supporting instruments that fill a substantial portion of the cabin.
Figure 6.23 Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). SOFIA allows observations to be made above most of Earth’s atmospheric water vapor. (credit: NASA)

Getting even higher and making observations from space itself have important advantages for infrared astronomy. First is the elimination of all interference from the atmosphere. Equally important is the opportunity to cool the entire optical system of the instrument in order to nearly eliminate infrared radiation from the telescope itself. If we tried to cool a telescope within the atmosphere, it would quickly become coated with condensing water vapor and other gases, making it useless. Only in the vacuum of space can optical elements be cooled to hundreds of degrees below freezing and still remain operational.

The first orbiting infrared observatory, launched in 1983, was the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS), built as a joint project by the United States, the Netherlands, and Britain. IRAS was equipped with a 0.6-meter telescope cooled to a temperature of less than 10 K. For the first time, the infrared sky could be seen as if it were night, rather than through a bright foreground of atmospheric and telescope emissions. IRAS carried out a rapid but comprehensive survey of the entire infrared sky over a 10-month period, cataloging about 350,000 sources of infrared radiation. Since then, several other infrared telescopes have operated in space with much better sensitivity and resolution due to improvements in infrared detectors. The most powerful of these infrared telescopes is the 0.85-meter Spitzer Space Telescope, which launched in 2003. A few of its observations are shown in Figure 6.24. With infrared observations, astronomers can detect cooler parts of cosmic objects, such as the dust clouds around star nurseries and the remnants of dying stars, that visible-light images don’t reveal.

Images returned from the Spitzer Space Telescope. These infrared images show from left (a) the Flame Nebula, a star forming region. Followed by (b) the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A, then, (c) the large planetary nebula known as the Helix Nebula.
Figure 6.24 Observations from the Spitzer Space Telescope (SST). These infrared images—a region of star formation, the remnant of an exploded star, and a region where an old star is losing its outer shell—show just a few of the observations made and transmitted back to Earth from the SST. Since our eyes are not sensitive to infrared rays, we don’t perceive colors from them. The colors in these images have been selected by astronomers to highlight details like the composition or temperature in these regions. (credit “Flame nebula”: modification of work by NASA (X-ray: NASA/CXC/PSU/K.Getman, E.Feigelson, M.Kuhn & the MYStIX team; Infrared:NASA/JPL-Caltech); credit “Cassiopeia A”: modification of work by NASA/JPL-Caltech; credit “Helix nebula”: modification of work by NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Hubble Space Telescope

In April 1990, a great leap forward in astronomy was made with the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). With an aperture of 2.4 meters, this is the largest telescope put into space so far. (Its aperture was limited by the size of the payload bay in the Space Shuttle that served as its launch vehicle.) It was named for Edwin Hubble, the astronomer who discovered the expansion of the universe in the 1920s (whose work we will discuss in the chapters on Galaxies).

HST is operated jointly by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. It was the first orbiting observatory designed to be serviced by Shuttle astronauts and, over the years since it was launched, they made several visits to improve or replace its initial instruments and to repair some of the systems that operate the spacecraft (Figure 6.1)—though this repair program has now been discontinued, and no more visits or improvements will be made.

With the Hubble, astronomers have obtained some of the most detailed images of astronomical objects from the solar system outward to the most distant galaxies. Among its many great achievements is the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field, an image of a small region of the sky observed for almost 100 hours. It contains views of about 10,000 galaxies, some of which formed when the universe was just a few percent of its current age (Figure 6.25).

An image shows the stars and objects visible in the Ultra-Deep Field.
Figure 6.25 Hubble Ultra-Deep Field (HUDF). The Hubble Space Telescope has provided an image of a specific region of space built from data collected between September 24, 2003, and January 16, 2004. These data allow us to search for galaxies that existed approximately 13 billion years ago. (credit: modification of work by NASA)

The HST’s mirror was ground and polished to a remarkable degree of accuracy. If we were to scale up its 2.4-meter mirror to the size of the entire continental United States, there would be no hill or valley larger than about 6 centimeters in its smooth surface. Unfortunately, after it was launched, scientists discovered that the primary mirror had a slight error in its shape, equal to roughly 1/50 the width of a human hair. Small as that sounds, it was enough to ensure that much of the light entering the telescope did not come to a clear focus and that all the images were blurry. (In a misplaced effort to save money, a complete test of the optical system had not been carried out before launch, so the error was not discovered until HST was in orbit.)

The solution was to do something very similar to what we do for astronomy students with blurry vision: put corrective optics in front of their eyes. In December 1993, in one of the most exciting and difficult space missions ever flown, astronauts captured the orbiting telescope and brought it back into the shuttle payload bay. There they installed a package containing compensating optics as well as a new, improved camera before releasing HST back into orbit. The telescope now works as it was intended to, and further missions to it were able to install even more advanced instruments to take advantage of its capabilities.

High-Energy Observatories

Ultraviolet, X-ray, and direct gamma-ray (high-energy electromagnetic wave) observations can be made only from space. Such observations first became possible in 1946, with V2 rockets captured from Germany after World War II. The US Naval Research Laboratory put instruments on these rockets for a series of pioneering flights, used initially to detect ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. Since then, many other rockets have been launched to make X-ray and ultraviolet observations of the Sun, and later of other celestial objects.

Beginning in the 1960s, a steady stream of high-energy observatories has been launched into orbit to reveal and explore the universe at short wavelengths. Among recent X-ray telescopes is the Chandra X-ray Observatory, which was launched in 1999 (Figure 6.26). It is producing X-ray images with unprecedented resolution and sensitivity. Designing instruments that can collect and focus energetic radiation like X-rays and gamma rays is an enormous technological challenge. The 2002 Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to Riccardo Giacconi, a pioneer in the field of building and launching sophisticated X-ray instruments. In 2008, NASA launched the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, designed to measure cosmic gamma rays at energies greater than any previous telescope, and thus able to collect radiation from some of the most energetic events in the universe.

Artist’s conception of the Chandra X-Ray Satellite, seen against the backdrop of a colorful gaseous nebula in space.
Figure 6.26 Chandra X-Ray Satellite. Chandra, the world’s most powerful X-ray telescope, was developed by NASA and launched in July 1999. (credit: modification of work by NASA)

One major challenge is to design “mirrors” to reflect such penetrating radiation as X-rays and gamma rays, which normally pass straight through matter. However, although the technical details of design are more complicated, the three basic components of an observing system, as we explained earlier in this chapter, are the same at all wavelengths: a telescope to gather up the radiation, filters or instruments to sort the radiation according to wavelength, and some method of detecting and making a permanent record of the observations. Table 6.4 lists some of the most important active space observatories that humanity has launched.

Gamma-ray detections can also be made from Earth’s surface by using the atmosphere as the primary detector. When a gamma ray hits our atmosphere, it accelerates charged particles (mostly electrons) in the atmosphere. Those energetic particles hit other particles in the atmosphere and give off their own radiation. The effect is a cascade of light and energy that can be detected on the ground. The VERITAS array in Arizona and the H.E.S.S. array in Namibia are two such ground-based gamma-ray observatories.

Recent Observatories in Space
Observatory Date Operation Began Bands of the Spectrum Notes Website
Hubble Space Telescope (HST) 1990 visible, UV, IR 2.4-m mirror; images and spectra www.hubblesite.org
Chandra X-Ray Observatory 1999 X-rays X-ray images and spectra www.chandra.si.edu
XMM-Newton 1999 X-rays X-ray spectroscopy http://www.cosmos.esa.int/web/xmm-newton
International Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory (INTEGRAL) 2002 X- and gamma-rays higher resolution gamma-ray images http://sci.esa.int/integral/
Spitzer Space Telescope 2003 IR 0.85-m telescope www.spitzer.caltech.edu
Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope 2008 gamma-rays first high-energy gamma-ray observations fermi.gsfc.nasa.gov
Kepler 2009 visible-light planet finder http://kepler.nasa.gov
Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) 2009 IR whole-sky map, asteroid searches www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/WISE/main
Gaia 2013 visible-light Precise map of the Milky Way http://sci.esa.int/gaia/
Table 6.4
Citation/Attribution

Want to cite, share, or modify this book? This book is Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 and you must attribute OpenStax.

Attribution information
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a print format, then you must include on every physical page the following attribution:
    Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/astronomy/pages/1-introduction
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a digital format, then you must include on every digital page view the following attribution:
    Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/astronomy/pages/1-introduction
Citation information

© Oct 13, 2016 OpenStax. Textbook content produced by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 license. The OpenStax name, OpenStax logo, OpenStax book covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the Creative Commons license and may not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University.