A telescope collects the faint light from astronomical sources and brings it to a focus, where an instrument can sort the light according to wavelength. Light is then directed to a detector, where a permanent record is made. The light-gathering power of a telescope is determined by the diameter of its aperture, or opening—that is, by the area of its largest or primary lens or mirror. The primary optical element in a telescope is either a convex lens (in a refracting telescope) or a concave mirror (in a reflector) that brings the light to a focus. Most large telescopes are reflectors; it is easier to manufacture and support large mirrors because the light does not have to pass through glass.
New technologies for creating and supporting lightweight mirrors have led to the construction of a number of large telescopes since 1990. The site for an astronomical observatory must be carefully chosen for clear weather, dark skies, low water vapor, and excellent atmospheric seeing (low atmospheric turbulence). The resolution of a visible-light or infrared telescope is degraded by turbulence in Earth’s atmosphere. The technique of adaptive optics, however, can make corrections for this turbulence in real time and produce exquisitely detailed images.
Visible-light detectors include the human eye, photographic film, and charge-coupled devices (CCDs). Detectors that are sensitive to infrared radiation must be cooled to very low temperatures since everything in and near the telescope gives off infrared waves. A spectrometer disperses the light into a spectrum to be recorded for detailed analysis.
In the 1930s, radio astronomy was pioneered by Karl G. Jansky and Grote Reber. A radio telescope is basically a radio antenna (often a large, curved dish) connected to a receiver. Significantly enhanced resolution can be obtained with interferometers, including interferometer arrays like the 27-element VLA and the 66-element ALMA. Expanding to very long baseline interferometers, radio astronomers can achieve resolutions as precise as 0.0001 arcsecond. Radar astronomy involves transmitting as well as receiving. The largest radar telescope currently in operation is a 305-meter bowl at Arecibo.
Infrared observations are made with telescopes aboard aircraft and in space, as well as from ground-based facilities on dry mountain peaks. Ultraviolet, X-ray, and gamma-ray observations must be made from above the atmosphere. Many orbiting observatories have been flown to observe in these bands of the spectrum in the last few decades. The largest-aperture telescope in space is the Hubble Space telescope (HST), the most significant infrared telescope is Spitzer, and Chandra and Fermi are the premier X-ray and gamma-ray observatories, respectively.
New and even larger telescopes are on the drawing boards. The James Webb Space Telescope, a 6-meter successor to Hubble, is currently scheduled for launch in 2021. Gamma-ray astronomers are planning to build the CTA to measure very energetic gamma rays. Astronomers are building the LSST to observe with an unprecedented field of view and a new generation of visible-light/infrared telescopes with apertures of 24.5 to 39 meters in diameter.