Everyday Science

What technological advances have made modern astronomy possible?
Answered by Dr. Gerard van Belle
  • Dr. Gerard van Belle

    Dr. Gerard van Belle

  1. Dr. Gerard van Belle Astronomer, Lowell Observatory


    So with the driving force of what has made breakthroughs possible in astronomy -- it's really on many fronts. I think I can break it down into three, which is there's obviously the computer technology that has made it so that you can handle large data sets and manipulate them and tease out details that you might not otherwise be able to see.

    There's been advancement in the electronics, not associated with computers, but associated with detectors, that have really made huge strides forward. So, just like you have, say, a handheld video-cam, the detectors that go into that sort of thing are now present on the back end of telescopes. In fact, that's where a lot of that came from. It was developed for astronomy first before it made it into consumer electronics. Those sorts of sensors have gotten incredibly sensitive.

    Fifty years ago, when people were using photographic plates, the sensitivity of those plates was about 1 percent. So, for every 100 photons that would fall from the sky and through your telescope onto the plate, about 99 of them, nothing would happen, and only about 1 of them would actually cause a chemical change that would then show up as a picture in the end. With these electronic detectors now, that number is not 1 percent, but it's pushing 50, 60, 70, even 80 percent in some cases...

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