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Most of the existing telescopes are located on Earth since it is easier and cheaper to construct, build and operate on Earth. Space launches are very expensive, and, moreover, if there is some problem with the telescope, orbiting in space, it is quite complicated to fix, since a team of astronauts has to be sent and work in open space is much more complicated than on Earth.

However, telescopes that operate in space offer a lot of benefits, comparatively to those on Earth, since the precision of the Earth's telescopes is limited by the atmosphere.

Hubble was a real breakthrough at the time of launch and discovered a lot of things and extended our knowledge about the space and Universe. As far as I understand, this progress would be impossible with any of the existing telescopes, located on Earth.

The upcoming launch of the Webb telescope is supposed to reveal a lot of facts about the early universe. In comparison to Hubble, this telescope has larger reflector: $~7$ meters for Webb vs $2.4$ meters for Hubble. In addition, it will be orbiting on a distant orbit far from Earth, with a radius of 1.5M kilometers. Therefore, there would be even less noise and hindrances in the observations.

At the same time, there are actively developing projects for construction of very large stationary telescopes: The extremely large telescope and Thirty meter telescope.

Why do we actually need these, if they are located on Earth and will be limited in precision, comparing to the Hubble and Webb telescope? Is it the case, that they are solving somehow different tasks, and the huge diameter of the reflector will allow them to observe something that cannot be seen by either Hubble or Webb?

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    $\begingroup$ Did you know there is a Space Exploration SE? Telescopes on the surface also have lots of advantages compared to ground-based telescopes. Larger, cheaper, easier maintenance. Your question basically assumes there is one degree of freedom or one metric of performance between surface and spaced based platforms when there are more. For example, a clear image and a high resolution image are not the same thing. Also, sometimes you want a workhorse that will last a long time rather than the best of the best but doesn't last as long. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Dec 15, 2021 at 5:36
  • $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen agree. Also, as far as I understand, telescopes have limited aperture, and Hubble or Webb can explore rather small part of space in comparison to large stationary. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 15, 2021 at 5:42
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    $\begingroup$ The JWST is a near-infra-red scope, so it has to be in space. It will only carry enough fuel for a 10 year mission. $\endgroup$
    – PM 2Ring
    Commented Dec 15, 2021 at 15:01
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    $\begingroup$ Also: You can never be too rich or too thin or have too many telescopes. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 16, 2021 at 10:15
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    $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen there's also an astronomy SE. As this question is about ground based telescopes I think it would be a better fit on astronomy SE, since space exploration SE is about spacecraft. Either would be a better fit than Physics SE. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 17, 2021 at 22:32

4 Answers 4

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Disclaimer, I'm no expert on the details, but I know the general idea.

Large ground telescopes are great, and often superior to orbital telescopes. The reason is as you said - it's cheaper to build ground telescopes, which means for the same budget you can build a bigger, more powerful ground telescope. It's true that space-based telescopes don't have to deal with the Earth's atmosphere obscuring things, but then there are also so-called adaptive optics that mitigate this advantage.

Three of the biggest advantages of ground telescopes are:

  • You can make them very large. Because of the way optical resolution works ($\theta = 1.22 \lambda/D$), big telescopes have a fundamental advantage over small telescopes, and you can make bigger ground telescopes for the same price. You can actually see this in your numbers. The James Webb telescope has a 7m mirror, while the Thirty Meter Telescope is four times as big.
  • In the same way, because they are larger, they can collect more light in a given amount of time. To get the same amount of light with a smaller telescope, you need to observe for longer, which is bad (telescope time is at a premium in astronomy; most of the time astronomers need to apply for time).
  • They are easy to repair. If something in the Hubble Space Telescope breaks, you might need to send up astronauts and conduct a space walk, which is obviously very expensive. Comparatively even the most inaccessible ground locations (like the South Pole) can be reached for a fraction of the price of going to space.

The discrepancy is actually such that many space probes aren't worth funding because one should just build a bigger, more powerful ground telescope.

Given the above one could flip the question around and ask, why bother with space-based telescopes then? There are reasons, some of the most important being:

  • The atmosphere obscures some wavelengths of light. If you want to observe in those wavelengths you must go to space.
  • Ground telescopes are susceptible to local weather conditions. If it's raining or cloudy, you can't observe.
  • Space telescopes can observe in all directions all the time. On the ground, you can only observe at night, and even then you can only observe half the celestial sphere at best (because the Earth is in the way of the other half).

See e.g. this source for more details.

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    $\begingroup$ JSWT observes in the medium infra-red (10um). Infra-red telescopes need to be kept very cold (under 10K) to stop them being blinded by their own IR radiation. This is impossible on the ground, and difficult in space $\endgroup$
    – CSM
    Commented Dec 15, 2021 at 15:41
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    $\begingroup$ "Webb telescope has a 7m mirror, while the Thirty Meter Telescope is four times as big." I'd argue it's almost 20 times as big, assuming the name is decently honest. $\endgroup$
    – Arthur
    Commented Dec 15, 2021 at 23:26
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    $\begingroup$ Besides resolution (which is proportional to aperture diameter as you said) the other important variable is light gathering capacity which is proportional to aperture area! Now, it’s easier for orbital telescopes to take extremely long exposures so they can compensate somewhat, but observation time is in high demand so faster is generally better. $\endgroup$
    – JohannesD
    Commented Dec 15, 2021 at 23:53
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    $\begingroup$ That is incorrect @CSM . Telescopes are routinely kept at much colder temperatures than 10K. For example, the South Pole Telescope that Allure links to operates at 4K for the optics and 250mK for the camera. Earth-based IR telescopes exist but most of the IR from outer space is absorbed by the atmosphere. $\endgroup$
    – user28400
    Commented Dec 16, 2021 at 1:08
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    $\begingroup$ You missed one: On the surface, it is difficult to stare at one point for more than half a day. Contrast the 10 days for the Hubble Deep Field. I'm not convinced "the Earth is in the way" is a local weather issue... $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 16, 2021 at 17:33
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Why might a family of four own both an expensive 2020 car and a cheap 2005 car?

A telescope can only look at one thing at a time. There a lot more than one astronomer on Earth who want to look at space. Thus, many telescopes are needed. The value of being able to build multiple medium quality telescopes on Earth for the same cost as one excellent space telescope should not be underestimated.

Also, different telescopes look at different wavelengths and distances. Some are compact cars, others are pickup trucks.

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  • $\begingroup$ Or to put it another way, there is only a limit number of minutes in a year for observing from any given telescope, and there are more things to look at than telescopes to do the looking. $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Commented Dec 17, 2021 at 1:17
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Another point for ground based telescopes, is the extreme flexibility in the actual instruments used as detectors.

Once built the mirror, dome etc are unlikely to needed replacing (though the mirror can be re-coated when needed) but things like the computers and detectors can be upgraded as new technology is developed or simply swapped out to perform different science.

Yes you can have multiple detectors on a space based telescope but the mass and volume is limited, and has to be fixed early in the design process of the satellite. Thus you must know what detectors you want before launch. On Earth you can can have as many instruments as you want stored near the mirror to be swapped out when necessary. Or replaced when damaged, or replaced by a new detector that wasn't even planned when the mirror was originally built.

Also on Earth the mass and volume are almost irrelevant for the detectors, they can be big and bulky making them easier to build and repair when damaged. If you instrument goes even slightly over the mass/volume budget on a satellite then that is a big problem, on Earth you may not even have a mass/volume budget but perhaps only guidelines based on what can fit on a truck (even then you can build the detector in parts and ship separately).

You can also mostly ignore having to worry too much about things like power, cooling, bandwidth for data. Its a lot easier to cool a detector when you just need to attach some fans to air cool it (or hook it up to an air conditioner). On a telescope you will have to build a full model of how the heat is generated and design in a complicated thermal management system to try and cool the telescope in space (and the total cooling is limited on a satellite). Some ground based telescopes simply ship hard drives full of data which is cheap, but slow, way to get a lot of data from a remote site back to base. A satellite has a limited data bandwidth for returning the actual science.

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The resolution of ground-based telescopes is not strongly limited by atmospheric turbulence. Large telescopes use adaptive optics to compensate in real time for the blurring effects of turbulence. Usually, this provides only partial compensation, and post-processing algorithms like blind deconvolution can bring ground-based images close to diffraction-limited quality.

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