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So Far and Yet So Near

B. Deer

Space is huge — full of planets, stars, galaxies, meteors, moons, cosmos, and more. Imagine seeing all that up close through a telescope!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

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Photo: Shutterstock

Y our camera can zoom in to make faraway images look close. Something tiny under a microscope appears huge. Eyeglasses make images sharper and in focus.

To see the sky and beyond? For that, we need the telescope.

The First Looker

Kids, you can be inventors too! Rumor has it that the first telescope was invented by children. In Holland, around the year 1608, two curious Dutch boys were fooling around in Hans Lippershey’s eyeglass shop. Hans really wanted to shoo them out the front door lest they break expensive lenses, but they were too busy experimenting to pay him much heed. “Hans, look!” they shouted, gesticulating wildly, “that weather vane looks so close to us!” Hans saw that they were looking through two lenses. He placed a tube around the lenses, called it a kijker (Dutch for “looker”), and the telescope was born.

News of this fantastic new “looker,” also called a spyglass, reached the ears of Italian astronomer, physicist, mathematician, inventor, and philosopher, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Galileo built his first telescope in 1609. While those early telescopes only magnified several times, Galileo’s were much stronger. By 1610, his 30x telescope (sees things 30 times bigger) led him to discover that the moon isn’t quite as smooth as it looks when viewed with the naked eye, but actually full of craters (bowl-shaped depressions). He saw four of Jupiter’s moons. He proved that the planets orbit the sun, not the earth. His findings were revolutionary in two senses: they were new and incited arguments. The people of his era refused to believe him. The Catholic Church forbade him from publishing his writings. The Inquisition put him on trial. But he kept on observing, studying, and secretly writing. Way to go, Galileo — never give up!

Telescope Talk

Space is huge — full of planets, stars, galaxies, meteors, moons, cosmos, and more. Unless one is an astronaut traveling the universe in a space shuttle or spaceship, space research is done using telescopes. Telescopes use light to magnify images.

All heat produced by the sun travels to the earth in waves called electromagnetic waves. All these different sized waves are known as the electromagnetic spectrum. Light has different wavelengths, and astronomers have special telescopes to collect each type of light. There are radio telescopes, X-ray telescopes, infrared telescopes, gamma ray telescopes, and ultraviolet telescopes.

Everyday Perks

Billions of dollars are being spent on building telescopes, research, and studying telescopic images. Lots of secrets of the universe are being uncovered, leading to all kinds of scientific studies and theories. There are also lots of practical day-to-day benefits from all that research. Here are some:

CCDs What, you don’t have any? You probably do, you just don’t know it. CCDs (charge coupled devices) convert the movement of electrical charge into digital value. The concept was developed for astronomy, but is now used in most cameras and cell phones. In simple terms, it’s what records the picture.


GPS Can you imagine how anyone ever got anywhere before the days of GPS? They probably got lost every day! GPS (global positioning system) pulls data from satellites. The network of 24 satellites were placed into orbit (in space, obviously) by the US Department of Defense. They were originally used only for the military, but in the 1980s the government made the system available for civilians too. Phew!

FedEx When, oh, when is that package arriving? Let’s track it! Federal Express uses a special computer language called Forth to keep track of their packages. This language was originally developed for the 36-foot telescope, built in 1967, on Kitt Peak, Arizona. Hey, I’m all for it, if it helps me get my packages quicker.

Clean Energy Don’t like all that pollution and smog from fossil fuels damaging our atmosphere? Jump on the bandwagon of research for new and clean energy sources. Say no to burning oil! Technology gained from imaging X-rays is now used to monitor fusion, where two atomic nuclei combine to form a heavier nucleus, providing a burst of energy. This may just prove to be our answer for clean energy. Stay tuned.

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