The Seven Most Incredible Telescopes In Existence

The biggest, smallest, and most robotic stargazing tools.

When China completes its newest telescope project in 2016, the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST), it will have a dish nearly half the size of a country (OK, only the world’s smallest country, Vatican City, but still). With FAST, scientists will be better equipped to study the universe and its mysteries, but other telescopes help research study the cosmos too, regardless of their size. Bigger isn’t always better—here are six other telescopes making astronomy better in ingenious ways.

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The Biggest Dish Today

The biggest telescope dish right now is at the Arecibo Observatory of Puerto Rico. This dish took three years to build (1960-1963) and, clocking in at about 20 acres in size, has enjoyed a 50-year reign as the largest telescope dish. The gaping depth of the bowl makes the dish much more sensitive, so scientists using the telescope can collect as much data in minutes as smaller telescopes could in hours.

The Next (even bigger!) Big Thing

OK, we’ve lied—bigger isn’t always better, but sometimes it still is. The Square Kilometer Array (SKA) will have a full square kilometer of surface area, spread across several antennas and dishes. This massive telescope is the result of an international funding and design effort, though where it will live is still undetermined. Top contenders Australia and South Africa are in the midst of subtle competition to play host—both have been installing preliminary antennas to show their enthusiasm. Pictured here is one of South Africa’s antennas, though 3,000 others will eventually be needed to power SKA, wherever it ends up.

The Smallest Telescope in Outer Space

On the other end of the size spectrum is Brite—the twin telescopes are the smallest telescopes in outer space. In this picture, Brite is the black object in the center. It’s inside of the satellite that now holds the mini-scope, which is riding on a rocket in space, having launched in February. Because the telescope doesn’t have to deal with obscuring weather or the atmosphere, it can capture crisp images that compete in clarity with larger Earth-dwelling telescopes.

Telescope with Robot Arms

The European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) received an upgraded new spectograph this spring: the K-band Multi-Object Spectograph (KMOS) that was attached to one of the telescope’s four hubs contains 24 robotic arms that will increase the VLT’s mapping capacity. Each one of the robotic arms controls an independent mirror, meaning that every image can be seen from 24 different angles. Not only does it look cool, it’s an incredibly efficient way to map the skies, saving terms of time and money while hopefully leaving more time for discovery.

Oceans Apart, Working Together

The two telescopes that are part of the Gemini Observatory scan the sky as a pair, despite being separated by an ocean. The Observatory is co-owned by six countries, including the United States. Having one telescope in Chile and the other in Hawaii allows researchers to view the entire sky, and has led to discoveries and research, including the testing of some of Einstein’s theories.

Hubble’s Old Hangout

Edwin Hubble is perhaps one of the most well known astronomers, having discovered that the universe is expanding and that the expansion’s speed could be tied to the Big Bang. He’s also the namesake of the Hubble Space Telescope, the long-orbiting tool that revealed the universe is between 13 and 14 billion years old. Hubble the person stargazed from the ground, however, and he did much of his research using a 100-inch telescope, shown here as it traveled to the Mount Wilson Observatory. Researchers also used the Observatory’s 60-inch telescope to discover that the sun is not the center of the Milky Way. Today, visitors to the Observatory in California can peer through these legendary telescopes.

The Largest Telescope Dish

The Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST) that China is building will take over as the largest telescope dish once it’s completed in 2016. It’s being built within a depression in the Earth resulting from a cave’s collapse, in a part of the Guizhou province so remote that it’s mostly protected from radio interference. The telescope is so large that the dish can’t move as one object; instead, the surface is made of several small panels that can move together or independently, giving FAST unique options in terms of range. For more on the FAST dish, check out this story.