Physical Cosmology

Why are telescopes important to planetary science?
Answered by James L. Green
  • James L. Green

    James L. Green

  1. James L. Green Director, Planetary Science Division, National Aeronautics and Space Administration


    Well, of course, telescopes are extremely important from an astronomical point of view, and we've been so lucky to be able to use the telescopes that are orbiting the Earth that are used for observing stars and nebulae. They actually observe our objects in our own solar system. So, the telescopes, the big telescopes like the Hubble Space Telescope, those are built and developed by a sister division -- astrophysics -- and we're able to leverage them.

    Even with that said, the technology to build imaging systems, smaller telescopes, which has been well in hand for many years, putting them on spacecraft enables us to go orbit a variety of planets and then look at a certain resolution to answer a variety of different types of questions. For instance, the telescope that is on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is so good that we can see about a meter down on the surface of the planet, and this enables us to see the MERs, the mars exploration rovers, both Spirit and Opportunity.

    It's enabled us to look at changes that occur on the surface from small impacts and how it uncovers a variety of material that becomes important for us to look at spectroscopically from orbit. Of course, then it also enables us to chart out the courses of future directions that our rovers might go and new sites that we want to put our new rovers, such as MSL, the Curiosity rover.

    Those sites that we've looked at over the last year or two now, we're narrowing it down and we're settling on a particular site for which MRO has gotten the detailed picture that's so necessary for us to be able to put it down safely and make the measurements that we need to make. So, telescopes on our spacecraft are extremely important, and we leverage them both in orbit but also on our spacecraft.

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