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The Oort cloud is a hypothetical structure based on our observation of long-period comets. There are currently proposals to design probes to confirm the existence of the Oort cloud.

Oort cloud

Now, sending a probe would have other benefits, but why can't we observe the Oort cloud with a telescope?

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I think an Oort probe in our lifetime is unrealistic and actually irrational! The Oort cloud starts about 2000 AU out. It would take generations to arrive there with foreseable propulsion technology. Even if launched today, it might well be surpassed by a far superior probe 50 years later. And besides, where to go if no target has been observed by telescope before? The Oort cloud is a very empty space. I'd like to see one of those proposals for an Oort probe, because I don't understand how the concept could work. –  LocalFluff May 14 at 9:30
"Even if launched today, it might well be surpassed by a far superior probe 50 years later." This will always be true, and is an argument for doing nothing forever. –  Marc May 23 at 1:29

2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Here's an answer I wrote for a question on Space.SE, but which applies equally well here. Let's talk about the Hubble space telescope, which would be much better at observing these comets than any ground telescope:

From astroengine.com

Using the equation: (d / D) × c = φ

where d is the diameter of the Oort Cloud comet (some estimates put this number at an upper limit of 300 km for the diameter of a cometary nucleus), $D$ is the distance from the Oort Cloud to Hubble (0.3 light years, or 3×1015 metres – distance at which it is theorized there is the highest density of Oort Cloud objects), c is a constant (c = 206265) and φ is the telescope resolution.

So what resolution do we need to image an Oort Cloud object, 300 km in diameter, from 0.3 light years away? If we plug in the numbers we get:

φ = 2.06×10-5 = 0.00002 arc-seconds

The resolving power of Hubble is 0.1 arc-seconds, and is therefore useless at detecting anything below this angular size; Oort Cloud comets (although pretty big at an upper limit of 300 km) simply cannot be observed by the world’s most advanced space-based optical observatory.

How big would a telescope have to be? Well, from the same article:

But how big would an Oort Cloud observing telescope have to be to resolve a cometary nucleus 300 km wide at a distance of 0.3 light years away? Using the simple relationship R = 11.6 / w, where R is the resolving power (R = 0.00002/2; the reason for halving our resolving power is given by Phil), and w is the width of the telescope mirror, we rearrange to get:

w = 11.6 / 0.00001 = 1.16×106 cm = 11.6 km

As you can see, such a telescope would be huge.

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It seems that this new telescope might be able to observe the Oort Cloud. –  called2voyage Dec 12 '13 at 17:33

I had a chat with a European PhD student who plans to make an attempt to find Oort cloud objects in data from the Gaia space telescope. This could be possible thanks to microlensing events when an Oort object transits (near) a background star and relativistically magnifies the star's light for a moment.

Best case is that in a few years we will have a map of a statistically useful number of Oort cloud objects. Enough to claim that we have "seen" it.

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