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galileo telescope

Tech Throwback Thursday: Behind and beyond Hubble

April 27, 2015
By Alexander Lucas
hubble telescope

With the recent passage of the 25th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope, Tech Throwback Thursday wanted to take a look back at the Hubble, and at its distant ancestor: the telescope.

We’re also finding out how next-generation telescopes can help us look way back into history to the birth of the stars.

Seeing objects faraway

In 1608 a Dutch eyeglass maker invented the telescope―we think. 

dutch telescope

Hans Lippershey first applied for this patent, but was denied when a fellow lens maker, Jacob Metius, filed a similar claim the same year. 

Made from a pair of concave and convex lenses, the telescope had a magnification power of about 3x.

The telescope spread quickly through Europe. In 1609 Galileo made his own version and began examining the sky. He later made large improvements upon the telescope and constructed a version that could magnify 33x. It was with this version that Galileo first found four moons of Jupiter and spots on the Sun.

Throughout the next 300 years, telescopes went through continual innovation. Telescopic tubes reached ridiculous lengths exceeding 150 feet. Lenses improved over time and were later replaced with mirrors.

Despite these advances, each of these designs still faced one enormous barrier to visual acuity: the Earth’s atmosphere.

Telescope in space

pillars of creation

In 1946 astronomer Lyman Spitzer wrote the paper "Astronomical advantages of an extraterrestrial observatory." He outlined the two ways the atmosphere limited observations. 

  • Atmospheric turbulence causes blurriness in images that appears as twinkling to the naked eye
  • The Earth's atmosphere absorbs or reflects wavelengths like X-ray, gamma, infrared and ultraviolet rays 

Spitzer advocated throughout his career for space-based platforms to overcome these obstacles. Early space-based attempts included the Orbiting Solar Observatory, the Ariel program and the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory missions. As essential as the data from the missions was in itself, these endeavors also proved the need for planned maintenance on a telescope to extend its working life.

The Large Space Telescope was first discussed in 1968, with an expected launch in 1979. Renamed the Hubble Space Telescope in 1983, the project languished without funding for many years. After further delays stemming from the Challenger disaster, the telescope was finally launched into orbit on April 24, 1990.

You can explore more of Hubble’s interesting history at To see more amazing images, like some of the ones in this article, check out NASA's image gallery.

Next-generation telescopes

horsehead nebula

As important as Hubble has been, it is time for science to start looking ahead. Hubble can no longer be serviced as the shuttle program has been discontinued. The instruments, which were last replaced in 2009, will gradually degrade and become inoperable. Ultimately, without assistance, the telescope will naturally fall from orbit, likely between 2030 and 2040.

As much of a downer as that is, what is next?

The primary space-based successor is the James Webb Space Telescope. With an expected October 2018 launch, the Webb telescope has some key differences from Hubble:

  • Webb is looking at a broader range of the infrared, whereas Hubble has instruments for looking at infrared, visible light and ultraviolet. This will allow Webb to look further back in time than Hubble and see births of stars.
  • Webb has seven times the collecting area of Hubble and 15 times the field of view.
  • Webb will venture much further out in space. Hubble is 570 km from Earth's surface, whereas Webb will be 1.5 million km from Earth. Technically not in Earth's orbit, Webb will be located about four times the distance from Earth as the moon. 

In addition to the James Webb Space Telescope, there are a number of extremely large ground-based telescopes that are planned for the next decades. These telescopes are massive in scale and, if completed and approved, will provide resolutions 10-20 times that of Hubble. Not surprisingly with projects of this scale and cost, delays are common and none of telescopes are likely to go online before 2020.

star fireworks

Looking back in time

As telescopes observe light from the past, it is interesting to consider one last telescopic bit of trivia. While the Dutch eyeglass makers are credited with discovery of the first telescope, there is some contentious research to suggest telescopes had in fact been invented nearly 3,000 years ago. 

The evidence in question is the Nimrud lens, a concave piece of rock crystal. Italian scientist Giovanni Pettinato theorizes it is a surviving piece of a telescope, which would be one explanation for Assyria's proficiency at astronomy. However, there is no other supporting evidence and plenty of alternatives explanations for the Nimrud lens.

Please let us know your first time looking through a telescope, your favorite Hubble image or what you think about the Nimrud lens. Also please be sure to check out our last Tech Throwback Thursday article about healthcare technology through the ages.

A self-styled storyteller, Alexander Lucas loves to share his vast knowledge of tech, innovation and design trivia. TEKsystems’ resident video designer is also an avid history buff and writes about technology innovation through time.

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