The word "Hipparcos" is an acronym for High precision parallax collecting satellite and also a reference to the ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchus of Nicaea, who is noted for applications of trigonometry to astronomy and his discovery of the precession of the equinoxes.
By the second half of the 20th century, the accurate measurement of star positions from the ground was running into essentially insurmountable barriers to improvements in accuracy, especially for large-angle measurements and systematic terms. Problems were dominated by the effects of the Earth's atmosphere, but were compounded by complex optical terms, thermal and gravitational instrument flexures, and the absence of all-sky visibility. A formal proposal to make these exacting observations from space was first put forward in 1967.
Although originally proposed to the French space agency CNES, it was considered too complex and expensive for a single national programme. Its acceptance within the European Space Agency's scientific programme, in 1980, was the result of a lengthy process of study and lobbying. The underlying scientific motivation was to determine the physical properties of the stars through the measurement of their distances and space motions, and thus to place theoretical studies of stellar structure and evolution, and studies of galactic structure and kinematics, on a more secure empirical basis. Observationally, the objective was to provide the positions, parallaxes, and annual proper motions for some 100,000 stars with an unprecedented accuracy of 0.002 arcseconds, a target in practice eventually surpassed by a factor of two. The name of the space telescope, "Hipparcos" was an acronym for High Precision Parallax Collecting Satellite, and it also reflected the name of the ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchus, who is considered the founder of trigonometry and the discoverer of the precession of the equinoxes (due to the Earth wobbling on its axis).
The spacecraft carried a single all-reflective, eccentric Schmidt telescope, with an aperture of 29 cm (11.4 in). A special beam-combining mirror superimposed two fields of view, 58 degrees apart, into the common focal plane. This complex mirror consisted of two mirrors tilted in opposite directions, each occupying half of the rectangular entrance pupil, and providing an unvignetted field of view of about 1°×1°. The telescope used a system of grids, at the focal surface, composed of 2688 alternate opaque and transparent bands, with a period of 1.208 arc-sec (8.2 micrometre). Behind this grid system, an image dissector tube (photomultiplier type detector) with a sensitive field of view of about 38-arc-sec diameter converted the modulated light into a sequence of photon counts (with a sampling frequency of 1200 Hz) from which the phase of the entire pulse train from a star could be derived. The apparent angle between two stars in the combined fields of view, modulo the grid period, was obtained from the phase difference of the two star pulse trains. Originally targeting the observation of some 100,000 stars, with an astrometric accuracy of about 0.002 arc-sec, the final Hipparcos Catalogue comprised nearly 120,000 stars with a median accuracy of slightly better than 0.001 arc-sec (1 milliarc-sec).
An additional photomultiplier system viewed a beam splitter in the optical path and was used as a star mapper. Its purpose was to monitor and determine the satellite attitude, and in the process, to gather photometric and astrometric data of all stars down to about 11th magnitude. These measurements were made in two broad bands approximately corresponding to B and V in the (Johnson) UBV photometric system. The positions of these latter stars were to be determined to a precision of 0.03 arc-sec, which is a factor of 25 less than the main mission stars. Originally targeting the observation of around 400,000 stars, the resulting Tycho Catalogue comprised just over 1 million stars, with a subsequent analysis extending this to the Tycho-2 Catalogue of about 2.5 million stars.