The drive to map the sky is as old as civilization itself. The Great Pyramids in Egypt point straight at specific stars. The ancient stone configuration Stonehenge in Britain is arranged to track the progress of the sun toward its northernmost point in the sky. The first astronomical observatories date back as early as the third century in the Middle East; at that time, astronomy was mixed up with astrology, and sky-watchers used cosmic measurements to predict the future. Since Islamic law forbids such superstition, many of the earliest astronomers were executed for heresy.
But during the Renaissance period in Europe, astronomy's ties to astrology were broken and it became a real science. In the late 16th century, Hans Lippershey, an eyeglass-maker in Holland, applied for the first telescope patent, claiming invention of a device that made distant objects on Earth appear closer. Soon after, Galileo Galilei in Italy turned his own telescope to the sky for the first time and saw incredible sights, like craters on the moon and four bodies orbiting Jupiter. His discoveries tended to fly in the face of religious dogma, though, and he had to retract much of what he said. Still, the telescope went on to completely change our understanding of the world beyond our planet.
What Galileo viewed through his "far looker" was a blurry mess compared to what we can see today. Not long after Galileo saw the moon up close, inventors like Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton and N. Cassegrain made a succession of major innovations in telescope design. Since then, developments in our understanding of astrophysics, along with technological advancements in optics, engineering and rocket science have led to amazingly clear, distant views of our galaxy and far, far beyond. Current telescopes can even see matter disappear into a black hole.
And the telescope race is just heating up.
In this article, we'll look at 10 of the most amazing telescopes of our time, including several that are still on the drawing board and promise to reveal images of the Big Bang itself. Many of these new telescopes are funded partially by private donors. We'll begin with some of the greatest ground-based telescope systems in use today. Because they have to be able to see through the Earth's atmosphere, these telescopes are truly massive.
Technically speaking, the South African Large Telescope, or SALT, is the biggest telescope in the Southern Hemisphere. But when it comes to telescopes, how big is "big?"