This is a question that has come up from time to time here at Beach Camera. People wonder if the cameras we sell are as powerful as the ones that cost several millions or billions and get taken up into space to photograph the universe. After all, many of those cameras were designed and sent up years ago and the consumer camera market brings out newer, more powerful models every year or so. Therefore, it stands to reason that the consumer market has caught up with and perhaps passed NASA’s optics, right?
The Hubble Space Telescope and other space telescope have a couple of things that pretty much every consumer camera on the market lacks. Mirrors, specifically. Several very large, very precisely placed, and very expensive mirrors. As a matter of fact, right after the Hubble Telescope was sent up, NASA discovered that the mirror was not the exact shape it needed to be and had to send a Shuttle mission with a new mirror to correct the problem. These mirrors are necessary to focus the light from distant stars so that the telescope can “see” anything at all to image it. Also, the Hubble has an effective focal length of 57.6 meters and an aperture of f/24. That means that the housing for the “camera” needs to be about 13 meters long and 4 meters in diameter — something that size is not going to be easily carried around on Earth.
Lastly, the Hubble has lenses and imaging sensors that would be useless in a standard consumer-grade camera but are essential in a space telescope. These lenses and sensors allow Hubble to “see” into the ultraviolet and the infrared parts of the light spectrum — areas that are normally impossible for humans or consumer-grade cameras to see. The lenses and sensors let astronomers use the information in the photo to gauge things like how far away a star or galaxy is, whether there is any kind of Doppler-shift in its orbit that might indicate a planetary system, what kind of star it is, as well as allowing them to take beautiful snapshots of some of the most distant galaxies and stars in our universe.
So, in brief, your camera probably isn’t as powerful at focusing on low-light settings or resolving distant objects as the Hubble’s camera is but that’s because your camera is designed to do things that the Hubble camera is not and vice versa.
— da Bird