Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Power to Gather Light

Why this passion for size?
As we mentioned before, the bigger the bucket, the more light you can collect, so the more information you can gather. The observed brightness of an object is directly proportional to the area (yes, area; not diameter) of the primary mirror. Thus a 78-inch (2-meter) diameter mirror yields an image 4 times brighter than a 39-inch (1-meter) mirror, because area is proportional to diameter squared, and the square of 2 (2 times 2) is 4. A 197-inch (5-meter) mirror would yield images 25 times brighter (5 times 5) than a 1-meter mirror, and a 393-inch (10-meter) mirror would yield an image 100 times brighter than a 1-meter mirror.

Now, things that are farther away are always going to be more faint. It should be obvious that a 100-watt light bulb will appear more faint if it is 1 mile away versus 1 foot away. Thus, a telescope that can see more faint objects is able to see things that are farther away. So, in general, the bigger the telescope, the more distant are the objects that can be viewed. As we’ll see near the end of this book, being able to see very distant (faint) objects is important to answering some fundamental questions about the ultimate fate of the universe.

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