Saturday, May 09, 2009

Hubble Space Telescope: Our Window on the Universe

Astronomy. Here on earth, we have been gazing out toward the stars since the beginning of humankind. Centuries ago, we began to piece together that we orbit around the Sun, and discovered that the earth has neighbors and that there are other planets which also orbit this small star.

A man named Hans Lipperhey of Germany is credited with inventing the telescope around 1600. But, it was Galileo Galilei who began using the telescope for astronomical purposes and gave all of humankind knowledge. However, even with the most powerful telescope here on earth, we still are not receiving the clearest look at the universe, and so astronomers began to envision a space telescope in the mid-1940's.

By 1974 as space shuttle construction at the Rockwell plant was underway, the talk of a space based telescope in low earth orbit became a real thing. Astronomers and engineers began to design this new large space telescope and announce to the world it was going to happen. Even the European Space Agency became involved.

Construction and testing continued into the 1980's and it was announced in 1985 that the new Hubble Space Telescope (named for 20th century astronomer Edwin Hubble of the Mt. Wilson Observatory near Pasadena, California) would be launched aboard the space shuttle in late-1986 with astronaut John Young as the commander. However, the loss of Challenger that same year saw Hubble rescheduled for a 1990 flight.

And so on April 24, 1990, after new modifications and better solar arrays were installed on Hubble during the shuttle downtime, the space shuttle Discovery launched from the Kennedy Space Center on an exciting flight to put a large telescope in space as a new decade of spaceflight began.

However, a week after launch, it was discovered that the telescope's mirrored lenses had optical flaws and thus the first images were blurred. A servicing mission was planned for 1993, to outfit Hubble with corrective lenses, and upgrade key components to improve the computers. Also, the addition of new solar arrays to improve HST's power was approved.

On December 2, 1993, shuttle Endeavour arrived on orbit to begin the first Hubble servicing mission, and what a busy and fun mission STS-61 turned out to be (This author, left, was there at KSC for the prelaunch and launch activities). The mission was a complete success.

And now in a few days, Atlantis will embark on mission STS-125 - the fifth and final servicing flight as it extends its robotic arm to shake hands once again with Mr. Hubble. This flight will help keep HST operating at least through 2014.

The space telescope orbits earth once every 97 minutes at an altitude of 350 statue miles. Astronomers from around the globe get in line so that they can use Hubble to gaze out at and photograph a specific object in space. Whether it is the planet Mars or a spiral galaxy hundreds of light years away.

No other telescope prior to the 1990's has made such major advances in astronomy as the Edwin P. Hubble Space Telescope has done during the last two decades. Even the most powerful earth based telescopes have to look through our atmosphere as they gaze into the heavens. It's like being underwater and looking above the surface at the trees or objects. That's why Hubble is important. A clearer view of the planets and galaxies around us.

What's next after Hubble? The James Webb Space Telescope is NASA's next space based observatory which is scheduled for launch in 2013 aboard an unmanned rocket such as a future Delta V unmanned rocket. Webb will observe from a location near our moon.

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