Hubble’s Last Mission

For almost 400 years earthbound telescopes have probed our night sky.  But they all faced the same formidable obstacle: our own atmosphere.  Have you ever look up into the dark night sky and watched the stars twinkle above?  That rippling is caused by our constantly shifting atmosphere.  The deeper into space astronomers look with their telescopes, the more distorted the images are.

The obvious solution: put a telescope in space.  Several have been launched in orbit, but none more famous than the Hubble Space Telescope.  Funded and operated by NASA and the European Space Agency it was launched into a 350 mile high orbit above Earth in April, 1990.  Sadly its 94 inch reflective mirror turned out to have a distortion in it, requiring a special mission to repair it in December of 1993.

With its optics repaired the Hubble was finally able to start probing the depths of space in earnest.  In the years that followed it shared with us many spectacular images.  From the birth of new stars and distant solar systems to aiding in the discovery of Dark Energy it has spent the past 16 years changing our understand of the universe.  Dave DeVorkin & Robert Smith’s book Hubble: Imaging Space and Time  does a wonderful job detailing both the complexity of this telescope, as well as sharing spectacular images of its many discoveries.  And Jeff Kanipe’s book Chasing Hubble’s Shadows  does an equally eloquent job describing the science behind Hubble’s amazing revelations.

As Hubble aged and started having key components fail several rescue missions were needed to repair it.  Four missions have been sent up to Hubble, culminating in the final one this May.  Over the course of five long (and dangerous) space walks a new Wide Field Camera was installed, along with replacing several gyros (to keep Hubble oriented), and the addition of a new Advanced Camera for Surveys. 

Sadly, Hubble’s days are numbered.  Its replacement, the James Webb Space Telescope, is due to be launched in 2013.  This tennis-court sized telescope will probe even deeper into the universe using both infrared radiation and visible light.  I certainly look forward to what new discoveries the Webb telescope will unveil, but I will always fondly remember the spectacular revelations uncovered by Hubble.  My hat goes off to this quiet hero!


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