Happy Birthday Hubble! NASA celebrates twenty five years of the Hubble Space telescope.
CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA, UNITED STATES (NASA) – The Hubble turns 25, marking a milestone in the history of a telescope that defied its early critics to become a crucial tool in space exploration in the years following its launch in 1990.
Unlike land-based telescopes that are at the mercy of Earth’s atmospheric conditions, the Hubble enjoys relatively unhindered views from its perch almost 350 miles (563 km) in the sky.
That vantage point has allowed the telescope, that cost $1.5 billion at launch, to provide a stunning picture gallery of distant galaxies, planets and cosmic explosions, that have been instrumental in improving human understanding of how the universe formed and is evolving.
“The telescope has exceeded all of our expectations, scientifically, the way it has impacted the culture, the way the people have adopted it as its own telescope. It has been a huge success story, probably NASA’s biggest success story over the years, at least outside of the manned space program,” says Dr. Kenneth Carpenter, project scientist for Hubble operations in Greenbelt, Maryland.
The Hubble had a shaky start in the years following its launch aboard the Shuttle Discovery on April 24, 1990.
Astronomers discovered to their panic that its primary camera was out of focus and shuttle astronauts had to install a fix in 1993.
“At first this looked like the biggest disaster,” Carpenter says of Hubble’s early days.
“NASA’s pride and joy, the biggest telescope in space in years doesn’t focus. The pictures aren’t any better than they are on the ground.”
The fix improved the Hubble’s blurry vision problem and according to NASA, extended its abilities to peer into the universe and deliver far more than researchers could have ever imagined.
One of Hubble’s most famous images is the Hubble Deep Field that was made when the telescope focused on a seemingly black and empty sliver of space in the constellation Ursa Major and founding it bursting with young galaxies and bright objects. According to NASA, astronomers called it a baby picture of space.
“That has allowed us to really peer back in time to the beginning of the universe about as far out in space as we can imagine within a couple of hundred years of the origin of the universe and see what galaxies were like,” Carpenter explains.
The Hubble made a significant scientific breakthrough when it provided evidence for “dark energy”, an unknown form of energy that some scientists hypothesize is a major factor as to why and how the universe is expanding. Hubble’s observations contributed to research on the expansion of the universe that was honored with the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics.
“Gravity always wants to bring things together. Dark energy always wants to push them apart and apparently things got further and further apart as the universe expanded, dark energy actually became stronger than gravity at those kind of distances. Now, the galaxies instead of going apart from each other more and more slowly are actually starting to speed up.”
In addition to breathtaking images of the universe, such as the Carina Nebula and Eagle Nebula’s “Pillars of Creation”, researchers say Hubble’s high sensitivity cameras have led to innovative breakthroughs in everyday technology. In other words, if you have ever taken a selfie, you have the Hubble to thank for it.
“Technology improvements were driven by the need to create very robust, very cheap, very small electronics for spacecraft like Hubble and that has kind of trickled down and improved our everyday lives,” says Carpenter.
Since 1990, Hubble has made more than 1.2 million observations. Its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is expected to be launched in 2018. That telescope will peer farther into space than any other instrument, building on Hubble’s success to unlock the secrets of the universe.