Observational Astronomy - Telescopes


Galileo Galilei was the first person known to have turned a telescope to the heavens and to record what he saw. Since that time, observational astronomy has made steady advances with each improvement in telescope technology.

A traditional division of observational astronomy is given by the region of the electromagnetic spectrum observed:

  • Optical astronomy is the part of astronomy that uses optical components (mirrors, lenses and solid-state detectors) to observe light from near infrared to near ultraviolet wavelengths. Visible-light astronomy (using wavelengths that can be detected with the eyes, about 400 - 700 nm) falls in the middle of this range.
  • Infrared astronomy deals with the detection and analysis of infrared radiation (this typically refers to wavelengths longer than the detection limit of silicon solid-state detectors, about 1 μm wavelength). The most common tool is the reflecting telescope but with a detector sensitive to infrared wavelengths. Space telescopes are used at certain wavelengths where the atmosphere is opaque, or to eliminate noise (thermal radiation from the atmosphere).
  • Radio astronomy detects radiation of millimetre to dekametre wavelength. The receivers are similar to those used in radio broadcast transmission but much more sensitive. See also Radio telescopes.
  • High-energy astronomy includes X-ray astronomy, gamma-ray astronomy, and extreme UV astronomy, as well as studies of neutrinos and cosmic rays.

Optical and radio astronomy can be performed with ground-based observatories, because the atmosphere is relatively transparent at the wavelengths being detected. Observatories are usually located at high altitudes so as to minimise the absorption and distortion caused by the Earth's atmosphere. Some wavelengths of infrared light are heavily absorbed by water vapor, so many infrared observatories are located in dry places at high altitude, or in space.

The atmosphere is opaque at the wavelengths used by X-ray astronomy, gamma-ray astronomy, UV astronomy and (except for a few wavelength "windows") far infrared astronomy, so observations must be carried out mostly from balloons or space observatories. Powerful gamma rays can, however be detected by the large air showers they produce, and the study of cosmic rays is a rapidly expanding branch of astronomy.

Read more about this topic:  Observational Astronomy

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