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Eyes on the Skies - Chapter 4/7: From silver to silicon

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4. From silver to silicon 400 years ago, when Galileo Galilei wanted to show others what he saw through his telescope, he had to make drawings. The pockmarked face of the Moon. The dance of the Jovian satellites. Sunspots. Or the stars in Orion. He took his drawings and published them in a small book The Starry Messenger. That was the only way he could share his discoveries with others. For well over two centuries, astronomers also had to be artists. Peering through their eyepieces, they made detailed drawings of what they saw. The stark landscape of the Moon. A storm in the atmosphere of Jupiter. The subtle veil of gas in a distant nebula. And sometimes they over-interpreted what they saw. Dark linear features on the surface of Mars were thought to be canals suggesting civilised life on the surface of the red planet. We now know that the canals were an optical illusion. What astronomers really needed was an objective way to record the light collected by the telescopes without the information first having to pass through their brains and their drawing pens. Photography came to the rescue. The first daguerreotype of the Moon. It was made in 1840 by Henry Draper. Photography was less than 15 years old, but astronomers had already seized on its revolutionary possibilities. So how did photography work? Well the sensitive emulsion of a photographic plate contained small grains of silver halide. Expose them to light, and they turn dark. So the result was a negative image of the sky with dark stars on a light background. But the real bonus was that a photographic plate can be exposed for hours on end. When you take in the night sky with your own eyes once they're dark adapted, you don't see more and more stars just by looking longer. But with a photographic plate you can do just that. You can collect and add up the light over hours on end. So a longer exposure reveals more and more stars. And more. And more. And then some. In the 1950s, the Schmidt telescope at the Palomar Observatory was used to photograph the entire northern sky. Almost 2000 photographic plates, each exposed for nearly an hour. A treasure trove of discovery. Photography had turned observational astronomy into a true science. Objective, measurable, and reproducible. But silver was slow. You had to be patient. The digital revolution changed all that. Silicon replaced silver. Pixels replaced grains. Even in consumer cameras, we no longer use photographic film. Instead, images are recorded on a light-sensitive chip: a charge coupled device, or CCD for short. Professional CCDs are extremely efficient. And to make them even more sensitive, they are cooled down to well below freezing, using liquid nitrogen. Almost every photon is registered. As a result, exposure times can be much shorter. What the Palomar Observatory Sky Survey achieved in an hour a CCD can now do in a few short minutes. Using a smaller telescope. The silicon revolution is far from over. Astronomers have built huge CCD cameras with hundreds of millions of pixels. And there's more to come. The big advantage of digital images is that they're, well, digital. They're all set and ready to be worked on with computers. Astronomers use specialised software to process their observations of the sky. Stretching, or contrast enhancing, reveals the faintest features of nebulae or galaxies. Colour coding enhances and brings out the structures that would otherwise be difficult to see. Moreover, by combining multiple images of the same object that were taken through different colour filters, one can produce spectacular composites that blur the boundary between science and art. You too can benefit from digital astronomy. It has never been so easy to dig up and enjoy the amazing images of the cosmos. Pictures of the Universe are always just a mouse click away! Robotic telescopes, equipped with sensitive electronic detectors are keeping watch over the sky, right now. The Sloan telescope in New Mexico has photographed and catalogued over a hundred million celestial objects measured distances to a million galaxies, and discovered a hundred thousand new quasars. But one survey is not enough. The Universe is an ever-changing place. Icy comets come and go, leaving scattered debris in their wake. Asteroids zip by. Distant planets orbit their mother stars, temporarily blocking part of the star's light. Supernovas explode, while elsewhere new stars are born. Pulsars flash, gamma-ray bursts detonate black holes accrete. To keep track of these grand plays of Nature, astronomers want to carry out all-sky surveys every year. Or every month. Or twice a week. At least that's the ambitious goal of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. If completed in 2015, its three-gigapixel camera will open up a webcam window on the Universe. More than fulfilling astronomers' dreams, this reflecting telescope will photograph almost the entire sky every three nights.

Video Details

Duration: 6 minutes and 15 seconds
Country: Germany
Language: English
Producer: Lars Lindberg Christensen
Director: Lars Lindberg Christensen
Views: 232
Posted by: esoastronomy on Apr 26, 2010

The International Astronomical Union's book and movie celebrating the 400th anniversary of the telescope.

THE INVENTION OF THE TELESCOPE has been by far the most revolutionary development in the history of astronomy. For thousands of years, astronomers had to rely on their eyes in unravelling the mysteries of the Universe. The telescope revealed an embarrassment of astronomical riches, and led to a dramatic increase of knowledge about the wider world we live in.

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