The Spitzer infrared telescope was launched by NASA in 2003.(Infrared rays are absorbed by the atmosphere.) This reflectingtelescope has an 85cm diameter mirror, with the recording instrumentscooled to 5.5 Kelvin. The interesting point about its orbit is that itdoes not orbit the Earth. It has been put into orbit about the Sun –we say it is in a trailing orbit behind the Earth.
Example 5. Why might this “trailing orbit” be superior to anorbit about the Earth for an infrared telescope?
The key here is the fact that infrared radiation is heat radiation. To avoid thermal interference the telescope instrumentsmust be kept very cold. However the Earth radiates infrared. Bykeeping the telescope in orbit about the Sun, and using a solar shield to protect it from the Sun’s radiation, the amount of cooling required is very significantly reduced, leading to agreater lifetime for the assembly.
The Spitzer telescope detects infrared radiation from cooler stars thatdon’t emit much visible light, and has also detected the presence of planets in other solar systems from the infrared they are emitting. Inaddition, infrared radiation can penetrate dense gas clouds in spacethat block visible light. The Spitzer telescope enables us to “seethrough” these clouds.Spitzer ran out of its liquid helium coolant on May 15, 2009, and it isnow warming up to the ambient temperature (30K). More research isplanned for the telescope, operating in its “warm” phase.
Microwave radiation is absorbed by water - that is how microwaveovens work. So the water vapour in the atmosphere will absorbincoming microwave radiation.
Example 6. Why is a major microwave telescope sited at the SouthPole?
Very cold air cannot hold much water vapour. Thislimits the ability of the atmosphere at the South Pole to affect theincoming microwaves. See the graph below.
The graph shows how cold air is always very dry. The ability of airto hold water vapour increases rapidly as the temperature rises:
Another advantage of positioning the telescope at the South Poleis that the Pole is 2.8km above sea level, so the atmosphere isrelatively thin anyway.The South Pole Telescope (SPT) is a 10-metre reflector, designed tomeasure microwaves of wavelength less than 1mm. The large diameterof the telescope mirror increases the signal received, and improves
(see the discussion in the Radio Telescope section).
The diameter of a telescope affects both the magnitudeof the signal received and the resolution of the image.
The SPT is used to locate distant clusters of galaxies. It uses asophisticated technique involving distortions in the CosmicMicrowave Background that pervades the Universe.
Much of the radio wave spectrum coincides with an atmosphericwindow – radio waves are not absorbed to any significant extent bythe atmosphere. So radio telescopes can be sited on the Earth’ssurface. This allows very large structures to be built. The Lovell radiotelescope near Manchester has a reflector diameter of 76m. This largediameter is very important for improving the
of sourcesbeing observed.For a circular aperture, two point sources can be observed asseparate, if the angle between them is greater than
is theangular resolution, defined by:sin
is the wavelength of the incoming radiation, and D is thediameter of the aperture.
Example 7. Find the angular resolution of the Lovell telescopewhen observing radio waves of wavelength 21cm (the hydrogenline).
/ 76 = 3.4
= 0.19 degrees
This is very poor resolution compared to optical telescopes studyingvisible light:
Optical image telescopeRadio image telescope
One way of improving resolution is to electronically link a number of small dishes, effectively increasing the diameter.However this does not significantly improve the total signal strengthreceived, as this depends on the total area of the collector.Radio telescopes can be used to monitor radio communication fromspace probes, etc, and can also be used to study cooler radio sourcesin space, which do not emit shorter wavelength radiation e.g. visiblelight.