Our knowledge of the universe comes primarily from telescopes. Telescopes allow us to see deeper into space than we can see with the naked eye. There are many earth-based telescopes, but what determines the strength of a telescope? There are several factors directly related to this question. These are the altitude at which the observatory is located and the size of the mirror. Here are 5 of the most powerful telescopes on Earth and in space.

5. Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope (GLAST)

GLAST Milky Way Images
GLAST captured this image of the center of the Milky Way in gamma rays. Image credit: NASA

The Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope (GLAST) detects gamma rays. Gamma rays are the shortest wavelengths of light and are generally emitted by high-energy processes in the universe. Gamma rays are normally absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere. This telescope was placed outside the Earth’s atmosphere to properly study gamma rays. By collecting gamma rays, GLAST will be able to learn more about supermassive black holes, neutron stars and quasars. GLAST was started in his 2008 and is still operational.

4. Spitzer Space Telescope

helix nebula infrared
The Spitzer Telescope captured this image of the Helix Nebula in the infrared. Image credit: NASA/ESA

A Spitzer was a telescope designed to see at infrared wavelengths. Optical telescopes can limit the information they collect due to the limited wavelength of light. This telescope allowed scientists to see regions of the universe that cannot be seen with optical telescopes. Spitzer was placed in a different orbit than the other telescopes. Instead of orbiting the Earth, Spitzer orbits the Sun in a heliocentric orbit. Spitzer’s heliocentric orbit moves him from Earth by 0.1 AU per year. This equates to approximately 10 million miles. This particular telescope was placed in orbit because infrared telescopes produce a lot of heat, but need to stay cool to collect data. Spitzer releases excess heat into the vacuum of space, so the telescope uses minimal coolant in the form of liquid helium. The Spitzer Space Telescope retired in 2020 after operating for 16 years.

3. Keck Telescope

keck telescope
Keck Observatory on top of Mauna Kea.Image credit: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

The only telescope on Earth on this list, the Keck Telescope is jointly operated by the California Institute of Technology and the University of California on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Built in 1956, the telescope has a mirror diameter of he 32.8 feet (10 meters), larger than some of the most powerful telescopes in the world. The reason this telescope made this list and is considered one of the most powerful telescopes in the world is due to its altitude. At 13,599 feet above sea level, Mauna Kea has less air than sea level. This makes the atmosphere less distorted than otherwise. The Keck Telescope was actually shut down in 2015 due to protests by Native Hawaiians surrounding sacred Mauna Kea. As of 2019, the Keck Telescope is scheduled to be dismantled.

2. Hubble Space Telescope

Hubble in orbit
An image from the Hubble Space Telescope in low earth orbit. Image credit: NASA/ESA

Launched in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope unveiled some of the most amazing images of the universe we’ve ever seen. At 7.8 feet (2.4 meters) in size, Hubble’s mirror doesn’t look that big compared to some Earth-based telescopes that have mirrors with a range of 330 feet. So why is Hubble so powerful? There’s a really simple answer to this. It’s the atmosphere. When a telescope is on Earth, it has to contend with the Earth’s atmosphere to see through it. This is known as atmospheric distortion. Essentially, as light travels through the atmosphere, it shifts slightly, thus increasing the margin of error in the extracted data. Hubble is in a unique position above the atmosphere where it does not have to deal with atmospheric distortions. This is why Hubble was able to take such sharp pictures with a fairly small mirror.

1. James Webb Space Telescope

James Webb
Image of the James Webb Space Telescope under construction. Image credit: NASA/ESA

The James Webb Space Telescope will enter orbit around the Sun in late 2021. Orbiting 1.5 million miles (1.5 million kilometers) above Earth and with a 21-foot-wide, 4-inch-wide mirror, James His Webb is by far the largest space telescope. A powerful telescope available to scientists. It can be seen up to 13.6 billion light years away. For reference, Hubble can see about 10 billion light years away. His two main objectives are to study the early universe and the atmospheres of exoplanets. Since this telescope has been in orbit for less than a year, James Webb will discover many untold truths of the universe.

world’s strongest telescope

telescope Release date position Altitude mirror size

james webb space telescope


in orbit around the sun

1 million miles

(1.5 million km)

away from earth

21.33 feet in diameter

(6.5 meters)

Hubble Space Telescope


in orbit just above the earth’s atmosphere

339.89 miles

(547 km)

above the surface of the earth

7.8 feet in diameter

(2.4 meters)

keck telescope


Mauna Kea,


2.57 miles (4.1 kilometers)

above sea level

32.8 feet in diameter

(10 meters)

spitzer space telescope


in a heliocentric orbit around the earth

352.9 miles

(568 km)

above the surface of the earth

33 inch diameter


Fermi gamma ray space telescope


in low earth orbit

347.9 miles

(560 km)

above the surface of the earth

no mirror

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