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I recently learned about the Orbiting Astronomical Observatories (OAO) program, a series of four space telescopes, the first launched already in 1966. Only two made it to orbit and entered operational phase. This program can be considered as a precursor program up to what would become the Hubble Space Telescope, aimed to show what is possible and gathering support for the big HST.

Being spoiled by HST images and now JWST images, I think of pretty pictures when I think of space telescopes. However, I don't think the OAO's had the capability to produce data from which images could be constructed. From the instrument description of the last of the OAOs (Copernicus) I gather that these telescope had a "single pixel" kind of instrument, which would be pointed at a source of interest and the e.g. collect the spectrum of incident light. I found two data archives for Copernicus (MAST and HEASARC), but I don't have the skills to process that data into anything meaningful.

What was the first space telescope that could produce something that could be classified as a picture?

I'm willing to interpret "picture" loosely: a collection of data points, evenly spaced in a grid-like pattern that is fine enough to discern features of the observed object.

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    $\begingroup$ For the sake of clarity, you're looking for something that would be taking pictures of stars, other planets, etc.? It being the Cold War, taking pictures of Earth was all the rage. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Sep 16, 2022 at 22:49
  • $\begingroup$ @Cadence indeed, it has to point "the other way". I think that the answer is going to be the first telescope with a CCD-like sensor, but maybe there was one that had enough point accuracy to produce something nice with a "1-pixel" sensor. $\endgroup$
    – Ludo
    Sep 17, 2022 at 7:35
  • $\begingroup$ Also, the early spy sats were basically cameras that drop the films to Earth. For a space telescope I'd expect something that has more sustainable way of retrieving data (i.e. via radio link). $\endgroup$
    – Ludo
    Sep 17, 2022 at 7:39

2 Answers 2

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You're on the right path:

ULTRAVIOLET TELEVISION DATA FROM THE ORBITING ASTRONOMICAL OBSERVATORY.

The Celescope Experiment consists of two major subassemblies installed in OAO-2: an optical package containing four 12-inch Schwarzschild telescopes using Westinghouse Uvicons to produce television pictures (2° square) of star fields

and an electronics package, installed in OAO Bay E-4, to control the operation of the Uvicons and to encode the television pictures into digital signals for transmission to the spacecraft and thence to the ground.

(after the failure of one camera) The other three cameras obtained more than 7400 scientifically useful pictures (until ceasing operations in 1970)

Typical television picture shown below:

enter image description here

Three camera views with ground camera comparison. Note: Camera 2 had been lost in operation.

enter image description here

Paper found here:

https://adsabs.harvard.edu/full/1972NASSP.310.....C

https://ntrs.nasa.gov/api/citations/19720024161/downloads/19720024161.pdf

These papers also reference this report:

The Celescope Experiment (1968)

https://adsabs.harvard.edu/full/1968SAOSR.282.....D

https://ntrs.nasa.gov/api/citations/19690012335/downloads/19690012335.pdf

Also: Celescope Catalog of Ultraviolet Stellar Observations

5068 Objects Measured by the Smithsonian Experiment Aboard the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory (OAO-2)

https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/85232065.pdf

enter image description here

Soviet Union:

The Orion 1 ultraviolet telescope aboard space station Salyut 1 in 1971 became the first Soviet telescope sent into space to observe the stars and was also the first to be humanly operated telescope outside the Earth's atmosphere. Observed Energy Distribution of alpha Lyra and beta Cen at 2000-3800 A was recorded. Although results were published, I haven't found an image that the OP might be looking for.

enter image description here

http://garni-cosmos.com/node/158

As a side note, I came across a couple of pages:

http://www.historyoftelescope.com/telescope-facts/facts-about-space-telescopes/ states: First space telescope that was launched in space was Orbiting Astronomical Observatory 2 (OAO-2). It was launched on 7th of December 1968, and it remained in space for 1 month. (obviously incorrect)

https://science.howstuffworks.com/first-telescope-humans-launched-into-space.htm states: it was the United Kingdom who sent the first telescope into space. (astronomical first, yes, telescope, no)

http://spider.seds.org/oaos/oaos.html (erroneous source for the above statement) - but potentially useful list of orbital telescopes nonetheless.

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    $\begingroup$ It seems that the premise of my question was wrong. Nice. Always good to learn. Thanks. $\endgroup$
    – Ludo
    Sep 25, 2022 at 17:35
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I nominate Luna 3, with the photograph of the far side of the Moon. 6 October 1959

I'm willing to interpret "picture" loosely: a collection of data points, evenly spaced in a grid-like pattern that is fine enough to discern features of the observed object.

This is clearly a 2D image with recognisable features (Like the Sea of Moscow), taken from space.

Going through all orbital launches before Luna 3 from 1957-1959, there doesn't seem to be many spacecraft with a working imaging system. The American Discoverer satellites had cameras, but they were pointing down and didn't successfully return images in the first few iterations within this time frame.

Some suborbital launches (which there are many more of) did definitely have cameras, as early as some V2 rockets, but I'm not sure that counts as a "space telescope"

Far side of the Moon by Luna 3

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  • $\begingroup$ I’m not sure if I’d classify Luna-3 as a “space telescope”. $\endgroup$
    – Ludo
    Sep 25, 2022 at 8:11

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