In 1946, a full 11 years before Sputnik 1, the first satellite, was launched into Earth’s orbit, a 32-year-old astrophysicist named Lyman Strong Spitzer Jr. conceived of a powerful telescope that would one day operate not on Earth’s surface but in orbit. High above the opaque atmosphere and the light pollution, this space telescope would have a clear and unprecedented view of the universe. It would be more than four decades before Spitzer’s dream was realized, but his patience and tenacity would eventually pay off.

More than light

The discovery of extraterrestrial radio sources by Karl Jansky in 1935 revealed that there were ways of observing the universe other than by visible light. The outbreak of World War II in 1939 interrupted research into this new and exciting field. It was left to an amateur astronomer from Illinois named Grote Reber to take the first steps in radio astronomy. In 1937, Reber had made the first survey of the radio universe using homemade antennae he had built in his backyard. Soon afterward, wartime researchers found that meteors and sunspots produced radio waves of their own, this time in the microwave band used in radars. If it was possible to discover new objects using radio, then it stood to reason that other forms of electromagnetic radiation, such as infrared, ultraviolet (UV), and X-rays, could be harnessed as tools of observation.

There was a problem, however. Earth’s atmosphere, transparent to visible light, is opaque to many of these kinds of radiation. The waves are absorbed by the air’s molecules, reflected back into space, or scattered in all directions into a meaningless hodgepodge. As a result, it is almost impossible to garner information about most kinds of non-visible radiation from terrestrial observatories.

Spitzer’s 1946 paper, entitled Astronomical Advantages of an Extraterrestrial Observatory, highlighted the problem of detecting non-visible radiation. His solution was to put a telescope into space. But Spitzer also highlighted the obstacles to such a proposal: first, the technological challenge of inventing space travel, and second, that of designing an instrument capable of operating in space by remote control from the ground.

“Astronomy may be revolutionized more than any other field of science by observations from above the atmosphere. In a new adventure of discovery, no one can foretell what will be found.” Lyman Spitzer Jr.

The level of the orange curve in this graph represents how opaque the atmosphere is at the given wavelength of radiation. The major windows are around visible wavelengths (marked by the rainbow) and radio wavelengths from about 1 mm to 10 m.

Twinkle, twinkle little star

The rest of Spitzer’s paper was focused on solving a problem that had frustrated astronomers for centuries—the sky itself. Viewed from Earth, the stars appear to twinkle. This effect is caused by the star’s light shifting back and forth, and rising and falling in brightness. This is not a property of starlight, but is caused by Earth’s thick atmosphere. The twinkle becomes more marked as magnification increases, making the objects appear shaky and fuzzy in the eyepiece of a telescope or as diffuse smears of light in photographs. The scientific term for twinkling is scintillation. It is caused when light passes through layer upon layer of turbulent air in the atmosphere.

The turbulence itself has no effect on the light, but the density and temperature differences that are making the air churn and swirl do have an effect. As the starlight passes through one pocket of air to another of a different density, it refracts slightly, with some wavelengths bending more than others. As a result, the straight beam of light that traveled to Earth across the cosmos starts to follow an ever-changing and haphazard zigzagging path through the air. A telescope or a naked eye focused on it will see a fluctuation in brightness as some of the light is directed in and out of that line of sight.

The impact twinkling has on capturing sharp astronomical images is called “seeing.” When the atmosphere is very still and seeing is good, the image of a distant star in a telescope is a small steady disk. When seeing is poor, the image breaks up into a squirming cluster of dots. An image taken over a period of time is smeared out into a larger disk. The effect is similar to the telescope being out of focus.

Improving the view

Observational conditions change constantly with the atmosphere. Before the 1990s, observers simply waited until distortions were at a minimum. For instance, high winds clear away turbulence, creating near-perfect viewing conditions. In the late 1940s, astronomers started to use movie cameras to film the sky in the hope that, among the thousands of frames filmed over time, there would be the odd “lucky image” that captured the sky in crystal clarity. Another solution was to go higher. Today, the world’s most effective terrestrial observatories are invariably built at the top of high, arid mountains, where cloud cover is minimal, and the air above is generally calm.

With the advent of powerful computers in the 1990s, earthbound astronomers began using adaptive optics (AO) to correct the problems of astronomical seeing. AO measures distortions in the arriving light and evens it out, just as a distorted mirror might be used to correct a deformed image to make it look like the original image prior to deformation. AO systems use minutely adjustable mirrors and other optical devices, but they also rely heavily on computers to filter out the atmospheric “noise” from images.

Despite the dramatic improvements brought about by AO, however, a large telescope in orbit, which could observe in multiple wavelengths of the spectrum, including visible light, was the ultimate goal for astronomy.

“Our knowledge of stars and interstellar matter must be based primarily on the electromagnetic radiation which reaches us.” Lyman Spitzer Jr.

Adaptive optics requires a clear star as a reference point. As these are hard to find, a sodium laser creates a “star” by lighting up dust in the high atmosphere.

The road to Hubble

As the leading voice in the field, Spitzer had been made head of NASA’s task force for developing the Large Space Telescope (LST) program in 1965. In 1968, NASA scored its first space-telescope success with the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory (OAO-2), which took high-quality images in ultraviolent (UV) light, doing much to raise awareness of the advantages of space-based astronomy.

Spitzer’s LST aimed to achieve more dramatic results than the OAO-2, observing near and far objects with the visible light spectrum. His team settled on a 10-ft 5-in (3-m) reflecting telescope and a launch was scheduled for 1979. However, the project became too expensive for its budget. The aperture was reduced to a less costly 100 in (2.4 m), and LST was postponed to 1983. As that year came and went, no launch occurred, but Spitzer persisted and the project continued. In the meantime, LST was renamed the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) after Edwin Hubble, who had first grasped the true scale of the universe. By now, the telescope’s mirrors had been constructed. To help reduce weight, a top layer of low-expansion glass sat on a honeycomb support. The shape of the mirrors was crucial. During construction, they were held on a support that emulated weightlessness to ensure they did not warp in space. The glass had to be polished into a curve with an accuracy of 10 nanometers. This would make it possible for HST to view everything from UV light to the upper end of the infrared spectrum. Further delays pushed the launch of HST to 1986, but then tragedy struck with the explosion of Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986, with the result that NASA’s shuttle fleet was grounded for two years.

Finally, on April 24, 1990, Space Shuttle Discovery hauled the 11-ton HST to its orbit 335 miles (540 km) above Earth. Spitzer had finally realized the dream of his career—a telescope in space unencumbered by the problems of poor seeing and an atmosphere partly opaque to ultraviolet and infrared rays.

A machine polishes the Hubble’s mirror. Its 100-in (2.4-m) aperture may seem small today, yet it is the same size as the Hooker Telescope, which was the world’s largest telescope until 1948.

Hubble trouble

The problems that had beset the mission on the ground, however, continued in space. The first images sent back by HST were so badly distorted that they were almost worthless. Was HST going to be a worse observational tool than a ground-based telescope? Analysis of the images revealed that the mirror was the wrong shape around the edge. The error was tiny—about 2 millionths of a meter—but enough to send the light captured by the outer part of the primary mirror to the wrong area of the secondary mirror, creating serious aberrations in the images. This was a worrying moment for Spitzer and his team, as it seemed as if HST might be about to prove an embarrassing failure.

The Hubble Space Telescope is the realization of Spitzer’s vision. It remains one of the finest scientific instruments ever made.

Corrective vision

If Hubble was to fulfill its potential, it needed corrective elements added to its optical system. In effect, it was given a pair of eyeglasses. The problem with the primary mirror was precisely calculated by analyzing the telescope’s images. The solution was to add carefully designed mirrors in front of Hubble’s instruments so that the light entering them from the main mirror was correctly focused. Two sets of these mirrors were fitted during a crucial service mission to HST in 1993. They worked perfectly. HST could at last be put to work, and the results were astonishing.

Astronauts serviced HST four more times after 1993 and for the last time in 2009, in one of the final shuttle missions. The shuttles were retired in 2011, after which it would not be possible to service HST again. However, that final service added significant upgrades, which mean that HST may remain in use until 2040.

US astronaut Andrew Feustel uses a power tool to repair the Hubble Space Telescope during a servicing mission in 2009.

Ultra deep, ultra clear

Despite its shaky start, HST has surpassed all expectations. The telescope has made 1.2 million observations to date during its 3-billion-mile (5-billion-km) journey around Earth. Despite traveling at 17,000 mph (27,000 km/h), it can pinpoint a position in space to an accuracy of 0.007 arc seconds—which is like hitting a penny coin from 200 miles (300 km) away. It can resolve an object that is 0.05 arc seconds. NASA likened this to standing in Maryland and viewing two fireflies in Tokyo, Japan. Astronomers worldwide began booking HST’s time to see objects of interest. The archive of everything it has seen—totaling 100 terabytes and counting—can be viewed on a public website.

Many of HST’s observations have looked deep into space—and far back in time. In 1995, the Deep Field image focused on an empty patch of space, one 24-millionth of the total sky. Combining 32 long exposures revealed a number of unknown galaxies that were 12 billion light-years away—light that began its journey just 1.5 billion years after the Big Bang. In 2004, the Ultra Deep Field showed objects 13 billion light-years away, and in 2010, HST used infrared radiation to make the eXtreme Deep Field of objects that existed just 480 million years into the history of the universe. To see farther than this will require the infrared James Webb Space Telescope in 2018.

“Nature has thoughtfully provided us with a universe in which radiant energy of almost all wavelengths travels in straight lines over enormous distances with usually rather negligible absorption.” Lyman Spitzer Jr.

Taken in 2004, the Ultra Deep Field reveals thousands of jewel-like galaxies in a variety of shapes, colors, and ages. The red galaxies are the most distant

Spitzer in space

HST is the most famous of the four great observatories that are Lyman Spitzer Jr.’s legacy. Between 1991 and 2000, the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory looked at gamma-ray bursts, energetic events that occur at the edge of the visible universe. The Chandra X-ray Observatory was launched in 1999, and is tasked with finding black holes, infant solar systems, and supernovae. The final member is the Spitzer Space Telescope, which entered space in 2003. One of its tasks was to peer into nebulae to pick out the hot zones where stars are forming. In 2009, the liquid helium that kept its heatsensitive detectors cool finally ran out.

Observatories can be placed in orbit around the sun rather than Earth, where it is easier to shield them from the sun’s heat and light and they have a wide, unobstructed view of the sky. Today, there are about 30 observatories in orbit, sending back images. NASA’s Kepler, which searches for extrasolar planets, and two ESA missions, Herschel and Planck, are examples. All were launched in 2009. Herschel was the largest infrared telescope ever put into space, while Planck studied the cosmic microwave background. In 2015, ESA launched the LISA Pathfinder to test the technology for a space observatory that would detect not electromagnetic waves, but gravity waves. Not even Lyman Spitzer Jr. could have predicted such an advance.

The Spitzer Telescope was named by NASA to honor the vision and contributions of Lyman Spitzer Jr. It was initially called the Space Infrared Telescope Facility.


Lyman Spitzer Jr. was born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1914. He received a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Princeton under the supervision of Henry Norris Russell. After World War II, he became head of the astrophysics department, and began his 50year devotion to space telescopes.

As an expert in plasma, Spitzer invented the stellarator in 1950. This device contained hot plasma within a magnetic field and started the search for fusion power that continues today. In 1965, Spitzer joined NASA to develop space observatories, but that year he triumphed in another field entirely. With his friend Donald Morton, Spitzer became the first to climb Mount Thor, a 5,495-ft (1,675-m) peak in the Canadian Arctic. In 1977, his campaigning for a space telescope paid off, and funding was granted to the Hubble Space Telescope. He lived long enough to see his dream become a reality in 1990.

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