In the hundreds of years since telescopes were invented, there have nearly literally been hundreds and hundreds of new developments that have come about as well. Constant improving and updating has been followed by technological advancements in telescope design as well as functionality.
One new development in telescopes has to do with the optical resolution. An optical telescope’s resolution—the ability to see fine detail—increases with mirror or lens size. However, Earth’s turbulent atmosphere provides a practical limit on resolution because it blurs incoming starlight. This effect makes stars appear to twinkle at night.
With the use of computers, astronomers are developing adaptive optics that essentially take the blur out of starlight. Astronomers use computers to analyze the blurring created by the atmosphere and compensate for it by rapidly distorting the mirrors in a reflecting telescope.
The Keck II telescope at Hawaii’s Mauna Kea Observatory was outfitted with this new technology in 1999, enabling it to take pictures that are 20 times more detailed than before. Telescopes using adaptive optics can resolve something the size of a quarter at a distance of more than 50 kilometers (30 miles).
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Optical interferometry is another new development in telescopes that has occurred in recent years. A new technique in optical astronomy is to combine signals from telescopes in separate locations so that the resulting image is equal to that received from one giant telescope, a method called optical interferometry.
In 2001 the European Southern Observatory opened the largest optical interferometer, the Very Large Telescope (VLT), in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. The VLT combines the light from four 323-in (820-cm) telescopes and several smaller telescopes to produce an image equivalent to that of a 630-in (1,600-cm) telescope.
Optical interferometers are useful for resolving the separation between relatively bright, closely paired objects, such as double stars. Astronomers hope this technique will eventually make it possible to directly image small, Earth-sized planets orbiting distant stars.
New developments in telescopes are occurring all the time as technologies reveal more and more about our Earth and what is in the night sky. With these new developments, we are better able to understand our universe and how various planetary bodies are formed as well as how they co-exist with each other in the vastness of space.
Astronomy is an exciting science and new developments in telescopes make it even more exciting. Things will change yet still in years to come, and we will start to see more and more of what we couldn’t before. New developments in telescopes are eagerly awaited.