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As far as I know, all deep-sky pictures are captured with the Hubble Space Telescope.

If there would be no atmospheric distortion, could we make deeper pictures in the optical spectrum with terrestrial telescopes, say, due to bigger mirrors? Or does the terrestrial light pollution limit the range due to the signal-to-noise ratio?

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The Hubble Space Telescope is only one of many sources of "deep sky" images, most of which are from Earth-based rather than space telescopes. – Geoff Gaherty Jul 15 '11 at 22:20
up vote 8 down vote accepted

I think the current answers are (somewhat) missing the OP. The issue regarding extended luminous objects, such as Nebulae is contrast, with the surrounding "darkness". Light pollution raises the brightness more or less uniformly across the entire image. One could try to estimate it, and subtract that amount of brightness from every pixel, but signal to noise effects come into play (i.e. we cannot eliminate all the stray light via image processing without introducing noise and/or processing artifacts. An obvous extreme example, is that we don't try to do astronomical observing during the day, even though bright objects, such as the moon, planets and bright stars can actually be seen.

Obviously, resolution also comes into play as well, as some of the background noise is due to the large numbers of very dim stars, which if they can't be resolved and corrected for add star noise to the background intensity level.

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Excellent point. Subtracting sky background is an important part of data processing at observatories. And certainly maintaining dark skies is important for both scientific and aesthetic reasons. – Larry OBrien Jul 28 '11 at 17:04
On a dark site the zodiacal light (sunlight scattered from dust in the solar system) is brighter than artificial light pollution. In the near IR the O-H skyglow is much brighter – Martin Beckett Jun 30 '12 at 18:34

It's not only our own light pollution that restricts our view.

Light pollution is an atmospheric condition, or at least contributes to it - it is such conditions that affect the clarity of an image produced by a telescope, considering the light from stars must make its way through the entire atmosphere to reach our mirrors on the surface, and it's disturbances in the air that cause distorted or blurry images - the condition is termed astronomical seeing:

Astronomical seeing refers to the blurring and twinkling of astronomical objects such as stars caused by turbulent mixing in the Earth's atmosphere varying the optical refractive index. The astronomical seeing conditions on a given night at a given location describe how much the Earth's atmosphere perturbs the images of stars as seen through a telescope.

This basically means that if the air is calm and tranquil, then the seeing is good and stars and whatnot can be observed with a steady light. Whereas if the air were to be turbulent and tempestuous, then the seeing would be bad and stars can could be observed to twinkle.

There is something known as the maximum useful magnification which dictates that power of magnification cannot be indefinitely increased. Each telescope has a practical limit of useful magnification, any further magnification after that won't expose any more underlying detail but will simply magnify the blurring caused by bad seeing or diffraction - to my knowledge this limit is about two times a telescopes aperture in inches. So, for a four inch telescope the limit would be around X200, and X400 for an eight inch.

Space telescopes obviously have the privilege of being removed from the interference of Earth's atmospheric conditions and so these can see much farther and with finer, sharper detail.

Naturally, 'if there would be no atmospheric distortion' then we could see better, too.

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Actually, with adaptive optics, professional observatories have managed to work around a large portion of the blurring turbulence. It's not as bad as it used to be. – Florin Andrei Jul 15 '11 at 0:42
@Florin Andrei: Agreed, and I should add something clarifying such; though, ultimately, we just raise the bar of limiting factors, I believe. – Grant Thomas Jul 15 '11 at 7:39

Although the Hubble is a fantastic instrument, it's most certainly not the only source of high-quality deep-sky imagery or data. Every night, there are dozens of active telescopes around the world doing good science and generating beautiful imagery. Adaptive optics has revolutionized terrestrial observing and, as you noted in your question, both aperture and instruments are easier to manage on Earth.

This is a great chance to share this wonderful image by Andrew Cooper showing the artificial guidestars of several observatories a few months ago atop of Mauna Kea: Dualing Lasers atop Mauna Kea Source:

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Another important point is that large telescopes on Earth tend to be located far away from light polution. The VLT observatory, for example, is located in the middle of the atacama desert hundreds of miles from any hint of civiliaztion. – Wedge Jul 28 '11 at 19:13
There is an issue in Arizona, where a proposed coppermine threatens existing observatories. Also Mts Wilson, Palomar, and Hamilton in California are too close to major urban areas. Clearly having to be located vast distances from civilization must add quite a bit to operating cost. – Omega Centauri Jul 28 '11 at 20:16

Light pollution is not just a question of nearby cities. It is the backscatter of the atmosphere which is the problem. And this means that the dust/dirt/fog in the air plays a big role. So, the zero-level is the Rayleigh scatter of clean air.

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If we had dark ground, there would be no light to backscatter. Of course we have downgoing light from stars, and some of that will be scattered in the same manner, that the "blue" in the blue sky is scattered sunlight. Also we have other sources of light within the atmosphere, airglow, and auroral activity. I think the former is the slow recombination of ions within the upper atmosphere. – Omega Centauri Aug 29 '11 at 22:27

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