The World's First Space Telescope

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Lorenzo von Matterhorn
Jan 31, 2009
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The World's First Space Telescope
50 years ago, astronomers launched the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory, whose descendants include the Hubble, Spitzer and James Webb telescopes

The payload, named the Wisconsin Experiment Package (WEP), bundled five telescopes equipped with photoelectric photometers and two scanning spectrophotometers, all with UV capabilities. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology created a package of X-ray and gamma detectors.

Scientists and engineers had to make the instruments on OAO both programmable and capable of operating autonomously between ground contacts. Because repairs were impossible once in orbit, they designed redundant systems and operating modes. Scientists also had to innovate systems for handling complex observations, transmitting data to Earth digitally (still a novelty in those days), and for processing data before they landed in the hands of astronomers.

The first effort, OAO-1, suffered a fatal power failure after launch in 1966, and the scientific instruments were never turned on. But NASA reinvested, and OAO-2 launched with a new WEP from Wisconsin, and this time a complementary instrument from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, called Celescope, that used television camera technology to produce images of celestial objects emitting UV light. Expected to operate just one year, OAO-2 continued to make observations for four years.

...the data yielded many scientific firsts, including a modern understanding of stellar physics, surprise insights into stellar explosions called novae, and exploration of a comet that had far-reaching implications for theories of planet formation and evolution.