A telescope is really a time machine

DID you know that when you gaze up at a clear evening sky, you're actually looking into the past?

Even with the naked eye, you can see starlight that was emitted years, or even centuries ago. And if you know where to look, you can see galaxies so far away that their light has been travelling since before humans walked the Earth.

Add the magnifying power of a telescope, and you'll journey to the time when dinosaurs lived. So, when you use a telescope you are in fact using a time machine.

“Space is so vast we can’t use everyday terms,” Dave Reneke, from Australasian Science magazine said.  

HISTORIC ASTRONOMY: Looking through a telescope is a trip back through time.

HISTORIC ASTRONOMY: Looking through a telescope is a trip back through time.

“To write out the distance in kilometres to a nearby galaxy you’d need 19 zeros, so astronomers use the term light year - the distance light travels in one year. It’s 300,000 kilometres a second, or almost 10 trillion kilometres a year.”

Planets are closer than stars so we talk about them in light minutes or light hours.

Moonlight is the exception. It takes 1.3 seconds to reach us on the ground.

The light from the sun takes a bit over eight minutes 20 seconds to travel to Earth, so it's 8.3 light-minutes away.

Stars though are a different matter.

“To really put things in perspective, consider this. If one of the stars in the familiar Saucepan constellation (Orion) exploded tonight I wouldn’t know about it for 900 years,” Dave said.  

“I’d have to wait here until the 30th century to see it. The light would take that long to reach me. True!"

Right now, Venus and Mars are about 10 light minutes away from Earth. The resulting 20-odd minute round trip for radio signals presents serious challenges for future Mars explorers!

We typically see Jupiter and Saturn as they were more than an hour ago.

As a rule, using a telescope makes an object's light brighter and its image larger, but it doesn't shorten the light's travel time at all.

We’ve got the best skies in the world. Why not go out and do a bit of time travelling tonight?

Did you know? Telescope mounts come in two basic types. The equatorial allows the telescope to swing only in the directions of celestial north-south and east-west while the altazimuth goes up-down (moving in altitude) and side to side (azimuth).