Monday, 8 December 2014

Pursuing the History of the Hubble Space Telescope

Visiting the full-scale test article for the Hubble Space Telescope in 2006. Randy Attwood photo

In the coming spring, astronomers and many other people will be marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. 

In that quarter century, our view of the universe has been revolutionized, thanks to a large part - but not entirely - to the Hubble Telescope. Today we know that the universe is expanding at an increasing rate, much to the surprise of astronomers and physicists. These scientists are now trying to understand the reasons for that accelerating growth, suggesting that a mysterious "dark energy" is the reason.

Hubble has allowed us to measure the age of the universe more accurately than ever. Today it is believed to be 13.7 billion years old, give or take a few hundred million years. Hubble's famous Deep Field and Ultra Deep Field photos have looked back in time and picked out galaxies from the early years of the universe.

While planets orbiting other stars were first discovered in the 1990s using Earthbound telescopes, Hubble and more specialized space telescopes have provided more information about these planets, with Hubble taking the first visible light photo of such an object.

But what most non-scientists remember are Hubble's amazing photos that go from nearby planets to stellar nurseries and from exploding novae to mysterious nebulae and evolving galaxies.

In addition to these and many other discoveries, Hubble has caused major changes to NASA and more importantly, to the way astronomy is done, both by professional astronomers and even rank amateurs like me.

Hubble is revealing the stories of our universe, but the space telescope's quarter century of operations have generated their own stories. And finding and telling those stories and looking for their meaning will be my job for the next few years.

Under a contract with NASA, I will head a group producing this history and a database of documents and interviews on the history of the HST. My colleague and mentor Dr. Robert W. Smith, now at the University of Alberta, wrote the definitive history of how Hubble was conceived and built in his 1989 book, The Space Telescope: A study of NASA, science, technology and politics

My book will pick up the story on April 24, 1990, when the shuttle Discovery carried HST into orbit. Soon horrified scientists discovered that the telescope's main mirror was misshapen, but in late 1993 the first shuttle mission dedicated to repairing and updating Hubble installed equipment that corrected the defective mirror and allowed the Hubble Telescope to live up to its original promise and exceed it. 

Since then, four more teams of astronauts have visited HST and performed needed repairs. When the administrator of NASA in 2004 decided to cancel the last repair mission due to safety concerns in the wake of the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster, an aroused public caused NASA reverse itself and fly that mission in 2009. Five years on, Hubble is still operating well, but  the end of the shuttle program in 2011 means that Hubble is now nearing the end of its own mission, since further repairs will not be possible.

Collecting and writing all that history is going to be a big challenge. The photo above showing me standing in front of the full-scale Structural Dynamic Test Vehicle for HST on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., represents what I see as the dimensions of the task ahead. 

Watch this space for my adventures as I chase the history of Hubble. And, yes, I'll continue to keep an eye on other developments outside of Earth's atmosphere.

An article I wrote in 2010 on Hubble can be found here:

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