I assume that for space telescopes to get good images, they must be put in perfect standstill, as even the slightest deviation in the viewing angle is amplified by the distance of observed objects, results in observing a different area of space. How is this feat accomplished? How can you stabilize an instrument in space, so that it can take images of galaxies gazillion light years away? And how do you know you have succeeded, apart from getting quality imagery?

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    $\begingroup$ This is a great question! An unusual exception is the GAIA telescope, which is very steadily rotating, and the CCDs are clocked so that they are read out synchronously with the drift rate of the images across the sensors, as described in this answer. Also, there's more to read about the way that the Hubble telescope aligns and stabilizes in this answer and in this answer. $\endgroup$ – uhoh May 6 '19 at 22:35
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh Thanks for the links. Do you memorize all of SE? :) And in case you do, can you recall an answer for noobs? Or perhaps write one? I tried to bite into Gaia and Hubble “Drift and Shift”, but it is some tough material.. $\endgroup$ – marko-36 May 6 '19 at 22:53
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    $\begingroup$ I live in "SE question space" rather than the real world. I don't know what day it is, I walk to the grocery store in bedroom slippers and a bathrobe, mumbling, while composing my next question in my head.This question is a really good one and I think it deserves an answer by someone who knows the answer or who can dig in to the technical information. I'll keep an eye on it and if nothing shows up I'll see what I can do. $\endgroup$ – uhoh May 6 '19 at 23:04
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    $\begingroup$ Should you find yourself in the grocery store, composing an answer to this, please try to dig OUT of the tech info instead, minding the fact, that this is an ant asking about the forest surrounding his anthill. Thanks :) $\endgroup$ – marko-36 May 6 '19 at 23:16
  • $\begingroup$ Okay, I've done my best with what I know. Thanks for coaxing me. I am not sure everything is exactly correct, but it's a start. $\endgroup$ – uhoh May 6 '19 at 23:52


In some ways it's easier to keep the direction that a telescope is pointing stable in orbit in space than it is on Earth.

There are tiny torques due to differential solar photon pressure on different parts of a space telescope, but these are small, very reproducible and can be learned, predicted, and compensated.

The James Webb Space Telescope has a giant sunshield that keeps the infrared telescope cold, and this can produce substantial torque. So it has a second reflector used to passively null out most of the torque. You can read more about it in answers to How will JWST manage solar pressure effects to maintain attitude and station keep it's unstable orbit?

In low Earth orbit (LEO) telescopes like Hubble will also experience tiny torques due to tidal forces; for example, one end of Hubble is in a higher or lower orbit than the other end. Without damping, this could cause it to slowly oscillate see this answer. Again, this will be small, very reproducible and can be learned, predicted, and compensated.

If you can somehow stop something in space from rotating, it will simply stay stopped and point in a stable direction, at least for a short time. If you can predict the torques due to solar pressure and gravitational tidal forces, you can apply tiny controlling torques to minimize those effects and it will stay pointed longer.


  1. Sensitive gyroscopes to measure tiny rates of rotation (inertial stabilization)
  2. Watch the stars at the edge of the telescope's field of view, using them as guide stars

Both are shown in the image below, taken from Hubble Space Telescope Pointing Control System.

The objects labeled "Gyros" are gyroscopes used to measure tiny rates of rotation of the telescope and send those measurement to the attitude control system for the telescope. Systems can use real spinning wheels, or fiber optic rings with light going in both directions, or other techniques, but the result is the same.

Currently Hubble is working without all three gyroscopic sensors on-line because it has redundant systems: You can read more about that in Hubble Space Telescope Reduced-gyro control law design, implementation, and on-orbit performance

The objects labeled Fine Guidance Sensors use CCDs at the edge of the Hubble's field of view to track stars:

The FGSs use starlight captured by the telescope’s mirrors to find and maintain a lock on guide stars to ensure that the spacecraft’s attitude does not change. One FGS can also be used as a scientific instrument to determine a star’s position with high accuracy. The level of stability and precision that the FGSs provide gives Hubble the ability to remain pointed at a target with no more than 0.007 arcsecond of deviation over extended periods of time. This is the same as holding a laser beam focused on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s head on a dime roughly 200 miles away — which is about the distance from Washington, D.C., to the Empire State Building in New York City — for 24 hours.

Feed this and other bits of information from other star cameras into the computer, combine it with the predicted torques from tidal forces and photon pressure, and the computer decides on a tiny correction torque necessary to keep it pointed stably.

That message then goes to the objects labeled as Reaction Wheels. These are four heavy, spinning wheels whose angular momentum is balanced such that it normally applies no torque to the telescope.

When the computer senses that a little torque is needed to keep the telescope pointed in the right direction, or to move it to a new field, motors on the spinning reaction wheels will speed them up or slow them down a little bit, and that will apply a compensating torque to the telescope.


Vibrations and oscillations of a space telescope's structure can also be a problem. These are addressed through very careful engineering and special materials. Structures are design to minimize vibration and oscillation by damping, isolation of moving parts (pumps, solar panels, etc.) and by use of light weight and stiff materials like silicon carbide to move resonant frequencies as high as possible where they are most easily damped and isolated.

Silicon carbide is a very popular material in newer space telescopes and is found in the optical system of too man of them for me to remember, but here is mention of it in GAIA's optical bench answer and in New Horizion's LORRI telescope answer.

enter image description here

above: Gaya's Silicon Carbide Optical Bench, with the two objective mirrors of it's twin telescopes pointing 106.5° apart. From Spaceflight 101, image credit: ESA/Astrium.

enter image description here

above: The LORRI telescope is described for example in the ArXiv preprint Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager on New Horizons

below: From Hubble Space Telescope Pointing Control System

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ This is gold. The ant thanks you. $\endgroup$ – marko-36 May 7 '19 at 0:20
  • $\begingroup$ @Marko36 thanks, I hope that it helps some. Feel free to leave a comment if you need something clarified or explained further, or ask more questions if you want to explore something in more detail. In Stack Exchange the sky's the limit! $\endgroup$ – uhoh May 7 '19 at 0:22
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    $\begingroup$ As an example of vibrations causing trouble: on the Hubble, the first set of solar panels would produce noticeable vibrations as they went through heating/cooling cycles on each orbit. The panels were replaced on one of the service missions. $\endgroup$ – Hobbes May 7 '19 at 7:32
  • $\begingroup$ @Hobbes please feel free to edit this further or add an additional answer! The OP was enthusiastic about receiving an answer and so I did the best that I could, but it's quite a deep topic and I'm not familliar with many of the specifics. $\endgroup$ – uhoh May 7 '19 at 8:20

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