Infinity is Just a Snapshot Away
Hubble's 15 years of celestial discovery
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.
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Something to boggle your mind
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An uncertain future
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."
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.
When did it all begin…
• 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?
• 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.
For more information, please visit hubble.nasa.gov.
Did you know?
• 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.
• 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.
IMAGE GALLERYAll images courtesy STScI and NASA. To obtain these and hundreds of other high-resolution images, visit hubblesite.org.
References1. The National Academies Press. "Assessment of Options for Extending the Life of the Hubble Space Telescope: Final Report." (2005). www.nap.edu/books/0309095301/html (Accessed 13 May, 2005).
2. "HUBBLESITE." (2005). www.hubblesite.org (Accessed 13 May, 2005).