Wonder at the mysteries of space and learn how telescopes have helped astronomers uncover them. Smithsonian educators from the National Postal Museum and the Center for Astrophysics guide an exploration of telescopes through images, a children’s book, and postage stamps.
Stamp Stories: Telescopes
Maureen: Hi, I’m Maureen from the National Postal Museum.
Erika: And I’m Erika from the Center for Astrophysics.
Maureen: Welcome to Stamp Stories, where we explore topics that appear on postage stamps. New stamps come out every year on wide variety of topics. Today we’re going to learn about telescopes.
Erika: Telescopes are used to help us study distant objects. At The Center for Astrophysics telescopes are used to help uncover some of the mysteries of our universe. Let’s talk more about that!
The Center for Astrophysics is a collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. Rather than one of the museums you might picture in Washington, DC, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory is one of the research centers of the Smithsonian.
The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory has three main facilities: Our Headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts – located on the Harvard Campus, The Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in Amado, Arizona, and The Submillimeter Array on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. The Center for Astrophysics also operates a number of other telescopes and instruments both around the globe and in space!
I help to run our MicroObservatory Robotic Telescope Network, telescopes designed to let young people like you explore the night sky. Here you can see two of our telescopes, Cecilia and Donald. Cecilia is in Arizona at the Whipple Observatory, and Donald is at Cerro Tololo Observatory in Chile.
All of the MicroObservatory telescopes are named after historical astronomers with connections to the Center for Astrophysics. Cecilia, named after Cecilia Payne Gaposhkin, discovered that stars are made of hydrogen and helium. Donald is named after Donald Menzel, a former director of the Harvard College Observatory. Telescopes, like these and the ones professional astronomers use, help us study objects in space.
Like the sun, or supernovas —explosions of massive stars at the end of their life. They help us discover exoplanets – planets that go around other stars – and look deep into nebulae - clouds of dust and gas where stars are being born. They even help us study galaxies - huge collections of gas, dust, nebulas, and billions of stars all held together by gravity. We live in the Milky Way Galaxy.
Telescopes work by gathering and focusing light from the night sky.
Most telescopes today use mirrors to reflect light to focus it. These are called reflecting telescopes.
The bigger the mirror, the more light a telescope can gather. Like in the recently launched James Webb Space Telescope, whose mirror is over 21 feet across, and in the upcoming Giant Magellan Telescope, which will have a primary mirror that is over 80 feet across!
Professional telescopes, like these and Chandra and the planned Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, also have digital detectors to allow scientists to gather light over long periods of time.
In these telescopes light travels from an object in space to the telescope. The aperture, or opening, of the telescope lets the light in. The mirror then focuses the light toward the detector. The shutter lets the light through to the detector, and The detector records the light to create an image, like those we saw earlier.
Maureen: It’s so exciting to hear that there will be a telescope named after Nancy Grace Roman! Her contributions to the field of astronomy are so important. Let’s read a book to hear more about her story. This is an excerpt from the book Always Looking Up: Nancy Grace Roman, Astronomer by Laura Gehl, illustrated by Louise Pigott and Alex Oxton. Special thanks to Albert Whitman and Company for permission to use this book.
Young Nancy Grace loved to look up at the endless night sky. She gazed at the tiny blue-white stars glittering in inky blackness. Her father's job changed again and again. For Nancy Grace, this meant moving from Tennessee to Texas, to Oklahoma, to New Jersey, and then to Michigan. Each new place seemed different and strange. But the same night sky extended across the country and beyond. Nancy Grace looked up to see the familiar moon glowing above each new home. And wearing her first pair of glasses, Nancy Grace looked up through their lenses to see colors twirling and dancing on a dark stage – the northern lights.
Erika: With curiosity as boundless as the universe, Nancy Grace vowed to learn more about space. She gathered friends into an astronomy club to study the constellations. Together they mapped sparkling patterns on an infinite black canvas. Standing in the quiet night, Nancy Grace watched brilliant meteors shoot across an ocean of deep dark blue. And she noticed Venus and Jupiter, outshining the stars.
Maureen: With determination as fiery as a supernova, Nancy Grace went on to college, where her professors told her science and math were masculine subjects. Cold hard facts and calculations were best left to men, they believed. Literature and history, those were for women. Yet Nancy Grace knew astronomy was for her. And her eyes were strong again, strong enough to read a tower of books stretching towards space. Nancy Grace blazed through science classes until one teacher admitted, “Maybe you just might make it.”
Erika: With powerful tools and her powerful mind, astronomer Nancy Grace searched for new information, new answers, even new questions about the universe. She studied bright stars in our swirly Milky Way, noting that young stars move differently from older ones. She observed binary stars, like AG Draconis - a giant star and a dwarf star orbiting each other. She worked with radio telescopes, detecting invisible energy from stars and planets.
Maureen: When brand-new NASA needed a chief of astronomy, Nancy Grace seized the opportunity. She traveled the country asking scientists about their hopes for space astronomy. Many had the same desire: a clear view of space from above the atmosphere. Nancy Grace understood that the atmosphere blocks and alters light from space. Looking at stars through the atmosphere, she wrote in an essay, is not too different from looking at streetlights through a pane of old stained glass. Nancy Grace dreamed of helping astronomers see farther into space than humans had ever seen before - past the moon, past Venus and Jupiter, past the stars she had mapped as a child.
The world needed a new kind of telescope: one that floated above the atmosphere, orbiting earth while capturing images of infant stars, black holes, and galaxies billions of light years away.
Erika: Nancy Grace brought astronomers and engineers together. What did astronomers want? What did engineers believe possible? What if something went wrong up in space? Meetings continued for years. Gradually they agreed on a design. A design that would become the Hubble Space Telescope. NASA needed money from Congress to pay for Hubble - lots of money. One senator questioned whether taxpayers should fund an expensive telescope. But Nancy Grace had experience defending her choices. “For the price of a single night at the movies, every American…will get 15 years of exciting scientific results,” she wrote in response. Finally, more than a decade later - following design changes, delays, and setbacks - a shuttle carried Hubble into space. As big as a bus as heavy as two elephants, Hubble was launched into orbit.
Maureen: The world waited for the first photographs taken without the distortion of the atmosphere. Photographs that would prove Hubble worthy of the money and years of effort. But the first images were blurry. And hopes plummeted like a falling meteorite. Yet, way back when Nancy Grace brought a team together to design Hubble, they had repair missions in mind. Hubble was the first telescope designed to be serviced in space. Three years after Hubble’s launch, astronauts installed a device to correct the faulty mirror. It was like putting “glasses” on Hubble. Once again people across the globe waited for pictures. Would the fix work? Nancy Grace waited too.
Erika: Yes! Crystal clear images from Hubble dazzled and delighted, informed and inspired. Nancy Grace, called “Mother of Hubble,” marveled along with the rest of the world at the photographs sent back from space - comets hurtling into Jupiter; dust storms on Mars; nebulae shaped like a butterfly, a crab, a tarantula. Over the next quarter of a century - much longer than the 15 years Nancy Grace had promised Congress - Hubble changed the way people saw the universe, and helped scientists make giant leaps in understanding space. Astronomers could track the shrinking red spot on Jupiter, measure the atmosphere of planets beyond our solar system, and estimate the age of the universe.
After retiring, Nancy Grace never stopped learning about astronomy - reading papers, attending lectures, talking with other astronomers. And even in her 90s, Nancy Grace loved to walk outside and look up at the endless night sky. As she said, the real way to learn about the sky is to look at it.
Maureen: That was a great story about a woman who was so important in bringing the Hubble telescope to life! Unfortunately, Nancy Grace Roman is not featured on a postage stamp, at least not yet, but here you can see a stamp with the image of Edwin Hubble, who that famous telescope was named after! Hubble was an astronomer, just like Nancy Grace Roman. He made groundbreaking discoveries that helped humans better understand space. The telescope you see behind Hubble on this stamp is at Mount Wilson in California, which is where Hubble did most of his work.
This stamp shows a drawing of what the Hubble telescope looks like. Although Edwin Hubble was no longer alive when this telescope was launched, it was named in his honor and it is one of the most famous telescopes in the history of space exploration. Hubble was launched in 1990 – over 30 years ago – and is still orbiting the earth today. It travels at a rate of five miles per second, which would be like going all the way from Washington DC to Los Angeles, California in ten minutes. Hubble is the only telescope designed to be maintained in space by astronauts, and so far five space shuttle missions have worked on it. Because astronauts can fix Hubble when things break or wear out, it is expected to last until the year 2030 or even 2040! So far it has produced over a million and a half observations that scientists all over the world have used for research.
These stamps show us some of the astounding images taken by the Hubble telescope. They feature the Eagle, Ring, and Lagoon Nebulae. As Erika told us, a nebula is a cloud of dust and gas. Some are regions where stars are being born, others come from the gas and dust thrown out by the explosion of a dying star. Edwin Hubble’s work as an astronomer and the information we have from telescopes has helped the science community understand nebulae much better. The Hubble telescope has been a vital part of this work because it can take very clear pictures that are not blocked or altered by the Earth’s atmosphere, as we learned in the book we read.
The Hubble telescope is very important, but it’s not the only kind of telescope that astronomers use. This set of stamps celebrates “probing the vastness of space” and it features six different powerful telescopes that are used to study space. You can see the Hubble telescope in the top left corner. The other ones featured in this series are found on earth, like many of the telescopes run by the Smithsonian’s Astrophysical Observatory.
In fact, one of these stamps shows a place that Erika mentioned. Remember the telescope called Donald, named after a former director of the Harvard College Observatory? That telescope is at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, which you can see here on its own stamp. Cerro Tololo is in South America, and Smithsonian scientists travel there to study space from the Southern Hemisphere. This site is well-known as a place where astronomers from many different countries can work together on their research. Who knows what they might discover next?
Erika: I had a lot of fun talking all about telescopes! If you’d like to learn more about telescopes and space exploration, check out the Center for Astrophysics’s website for more content and resources, or take your very own images using the MicroObservatory Telescopes!
Maureen: Thank you so much, Erika, and thank you to our audience for joining us today. If you’d like to learn more about telescopes on stamps or about a whole lot of other topics you can visit the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum’s website. We encourage you to just keep exploring!