Infinity is Just a Snapshot Away

Tue, 05/31/2005 - 8:00pm
Jennifer Miller, Managing Editor
Infinity is Just a Snapshot Away

Hubble's 15 years of celestial discovery

Curiosity is simple human nature. It's a deep-seated compulsion, an instinct if you will, to step out of the ordinary and explore, study and discover our surroundings. Can you imagine a world without the not-so-simple theories and findings of Galileo, Columbus, Einstein or Newton? Neither can I.

The explorer to which I refer today, however, has no brain with which to think, no mouth with which to speak, nor eyes with which to see. But through human ingenuity and a celestial dream came the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), first placed into orbit on April 25, 1990. Fifteen years later, we celebrate the many discoveries it has made in our galaxy and trillions of light years beyond and, oh yeah, the hundreds of thousands of really cool images.

Two of these photographs were unveiled for the first time at museums, planetariums and science centers around the country on April 25 in commemoration of the telescope's 15th anniversary. They represent two of the largest and highest-resolution images ever taken by Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS), and are 20 times larger than photographs taken by a typical digital camera. You can enlarge them to billboard size and they'll still retain their incredibly sharp detail.
Dragon tales
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Standing a mere 9.5 light years (57 trillion miles) high, the ever-billowing tower of hydrogen gas and stellar dust rises out of newborn stars, forming the Eagle Nebula, which resembles an unruly dragon straight out of a fantasy movie. Nearby starlight illuminates the structure and accentuates its three-dimensional shape. While infant stars are nursed by the surrounding gases and ultraviolet light, new stars are just forming in other areas of the tower. This birthing process can take place in many ways, for instance, by dense gases that collapse due to gravity, or from nearby hot stars heating gases to a pressure point.
Cosmic comrades
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This breathtaking image of M51 (NGC 5194), better known as the Whirlpool Galaxy, is the first photograph taken that captures the entire galaxy, not to mention its companion galaxy, NGC 5195, in a single frame. Its two curving arms of young stars, which formed under the pressure of hydrogen gas, spiral out from a central cluster of matured stars. The smaller galaxy passing to the right and behind the Whirlpool lead some astronomers to believe that its gravitational strength contributes to the Whirlpool's well-defined spiraling arms. This small NGC 5195 has been passing by Whirlpool for hundreds of millions of years.
Something to boggle your mind
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Though not revealed on Hubble's anniversary, this image is still worth a serious second glimpse. In March of 2004, astronomers at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) revealed an image portraying the deepest view ever achieved of the visible universe, called the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (HUDF). This is truly a view into the dark ages. Says Massimo Stiavelli of the Institute, "Hubble takes us to within a stone's throw of the big bang itself." In other words, the 10,000 confetti-like galaxies pictured here are trillions and trillions of miles away. Hubble's ACS camera has not observed these galaxies as they are presently, but as they were billions of years ago when the universe first formed. The camera photographed ancient photons that passed through the universe before the Milky Way even existed. Light from these faint galaxies dribbled in at a rate of one photon per minute. Compare this to photons traveling by the millions per minute when capturing nearby galaxies. "Where the [earlier] Hubble Deep Fields showed galaxies when they were youngsters, the Hubble Ultra Deep Field reveals them as toddlers, enmeshed in a period of rapid developmental changes," Stiavelli says.
An uncertain future
Despite Hubble's seemingly endless contributions to modern astronomy, a grim future may lie ahead for this exploratory genius. While regularly scheduled maintenance missions have taken place throughout its 15 years in orbit, a fifth mission for routine servicing and installation of new instruments, originally scheduled for 2006, has been cancelled amid safety concerns after the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, as well as a lack of federal funding from the White House. NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe made the announcement on January 16, 2005.

While Hubble will continue to operate until natural wear and tear takes its toll, options are being explored to help save the telescope from an untimely death. The National Academy of Sciences formed the Committee on Assessment of Options for Extending the Life of the Hubble Space Telescope. Members, including former astronauts, scientists, Nobel laureates and professors, have examined the risks involved with sending astronauts for service missions, and have explored the benefits and drawbacks of alternative servicing methods, including robotic maintenance.

However, on December 8, 2004, it was decided that "...based on…the very aggressive schedule for development of a viable robotic servicing mission, the commitment to development of individual elements with incomplete systems engineering, the complexity of the mission design, the current low level of technology maturity, the magnitude of the risk-reduction efforts required, and the inability of a robotic servicing mission to respond to unforeseen failures that may well occur on Hubble between now and the mission, together make it highly unlikely that NASA will be able to extend the science life of HST through robotic servicing."[1]

The Hubble Space Telescope has certainly moved beyond simple curiosity to break the barriers of space and time. Despite the recent mission cancellation and these bleak estimations, we should continue to celebrate what Hubble has brought into the foreground of astronomy, and of science as a whole.[2]
When did it all begin…
1918: The 2.5 meter (100-inch) Hooker Telescope is introduced at Mt. Wilson Observatory in Pasadena, CA. Astronomer Edwin Hubble begins his work in the 1920s, measuring the distances and velocities of galaxies. This lays the groundwork for today's theory of an expanding universe, as well as the Big Bang theory.
1923: An article written by rocket scientist Herman Oberth ponders the notion of sending telescopes into orbit.
1969: Astrophysicist Lyman Spitzer gains the additional support of astronomers for the creation of a "large orbital telescope." The National Academy of Sciences approves the Large Space Telescope (LST) project.
1977: Congress provides funding for the project. NASA honors Edwin Hubble by naming the LST after the great astronomer.
1981: The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), built to support the Hubble Space Telescope's research, begins operations in Baltimore, MD.
1990: The Hubble Space Telescope is sent into orbit on April 25. In June, a spherical aberration is found in the telescope's primary mirror. Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement (COSTAR) is approved, which can remedy the marred mirror with the packaging of five optical mirror pairs.
…and when will it end?
1993: Servicing Mission 1 (SM1) is underway in December to implement COSTAR, which replaces Hubble's original high-speed photometer. Also, the Wide-Field Planetary Camera (WFPC) is replaced by the WFPC2.
1997: Servicing Mission 2 (SM2) takes shape in February. A Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) is installed in HST, replacing the Faint Object Spectrograph (FOS). The Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS) replace the Goddard High Resolution Spectrograph.
1998: In late October, the HST Orbital Systems Test (HOST) is conducted to investigate the installation of new technologies during the upcoming Servicing Missions 3A and 3B.
1999: Servicing Mission 3A (SM3A) replaces the Hubble's computer, performs general maintenance and replaces the Rate Sensing Units (RSU) in mid-December.
2002: Servicing Mission 3B (SM3B) begins on March 1 to install the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) and the NICMOS Cooling System (NCS). The Solar Array 2 (SA2) is also replaced with SA3.
20??: An unfortunate turn of events results in cancellation of Servicing Mission 4 (SM4), originally scheduled for 2006, due to increasing dangers to astronauts. No additional missions have been scheduled at this time. While Hubble's future is still unknown, it will continue to operate as long as it is able.

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Did you know?
• Hubble's first image was taken on May 20, 1990, of Star Cluster NGC 3532.
• Hubble's optical mirrors are so smooth that they do not deviate from perfect curvature by more than 1/800,000ths of an inch. If the primary mirror increased in size to the diameter of the Earth, the largest bump would stand only six inches tall.
• There is no "natural color" camera aboard the Hubble. To create these brilliant images, color is added to the grayscale photos, revealing details that would otherwise go unnoticed.
• Hubble is about the size of a large school bus and weighs 24,500 lbs.
• It takes Hubble 97 minutes to orbit the Earth once, traveling a speed of five miles per second (at this speed, it would take a car 10 minutes to travel the United States from east coast to west coast).
• The telescope is unable to observe the Sun or Mercury, although its main energy source is the Sun.
• Hubble uses the same amount of energy as 28 100-watt light bulbs during one complete orbit.
• Try steadying a laser on a dime that's 200 miles away. That's the accuracy Hubble achieves when observing distant galaxies and other celestial bodies.
• 120 gigabytes of scientific data is transmitted each week, all of which is stored on magneto-optical disks.
Amazing discoveries
The Hubble Space Telescope has:
• aided astronomers in calculating the accurate age of the universe as 13.7 billion years old. Put into the perspective of a 24-hour period, Earth would have formed around 4:00-5:00 pm, and humans would have existed for a mere two seconds.
• confirmed the existence of strange dark energy.
• proved the existence of massive black holes, an extraordinary phenomenon with a gravitational grip that sucks up everything in its path, including light.
• provided high-resolution views of a comet crashing into Jupiter.
• showed that the process of forming planetary systems is common throughout the galaxy.
All images courtesy STScI and NASA. To obtain these and hundreds of other high-resolution images, visit

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An abrasive collision gives one galaxy a "black eye" 
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Hubble unveils a galaxy in living color 
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Burst of star formation drives bubble in galaxy's core

Solar System
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Hubble spots rare triple eclipse on Jupiter
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Hubble's close encounter with Mars
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Detail of Saturn's rings, disk and shadow

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Hubble probes the complex history of a dying star
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Hubble sees supersonic exhaust from nebula
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"Window-curtain" structure of the Orion Nebula

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Blowing cosmic bubbles
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SN1987a in the Large Magellanic Cloud
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Hubble spies globular cluster in neighboring galaxy
1. The National Academies Press. "Assessment of Options for Extending the Life of the Hubble Space Telescope: Final Report." (2005). (Accessed 13 May, 2005).
2. "HUBBLESITE." (2005). (Accessed 13 May, 2005).



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