Monday, 12 December 2016

My Long History With the Hubble Space Telescope

Interviewing Ron Sheffield, who helped train the astronauts to service the Hubble Space Telescope, Salinas CA, September 2016. John Ruley Photo.

Forty years ago this month, I was winding up my science elective course, Geophysics 310, at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver as part of my studies for an undergraduate history degree.

I handed in an essay on the U.S. space shuttle, which then was still more than four years away from its first flight, and the essay included these lines:

Most of these statements proved to be wrong, even as I wrote them in the fall of 1976. The year before, the Large Space Telescope had been renamed the Space Telescope, and it would be renamed again in 1983 as the Hubble Space Telescope or HST. It wouldn’t be launched until 1990. It wouldn’t use a television system but a digital system based on charge coupled devices, a concept I knew nothing about back then. The telescope's aperture had already been reduced to 2.4 metres, but at least my number for its resolution has proven to be close to reality. And then there’s that spelling error.

Little did I know that four decades later, I would be writing a book about HST for NASA. Back then the Internet was still in the future, and like most everyone at the time, I used a typewriter to write that essay because only a few hobbyists had their own computers. 

I trust that thanks to fact checking by reviewers, if not enhancements to my knowledge, my upcoming book will be more accurate than the first thing I wrote about HST.

For the past two years, I have been working hard on the yet untitled history of the Hubble Space Telescope since its launch in 1990. I have another year to go on my contract , and there’s a lot of work to do. That’s why entries to this blog have become very scarce and will continue to be infrequent for the next few months.

I wrote about my early work on the HST Operations History Project in this space in December 2014, January 2015, and most recently in May 2015, shortly after my first research trip to the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. Hubble is controlled at Goddard, and STScI is the scientific operating centre for HST and the James Webb Space Telescope, which is awaiting launch in 2018.

Since then, I have returned to Baltimore and Greenbelt three times, and I have also travelled to Colorado, California and Florida in search of information about HST. I have been searching for documents about the history of Hubble, and interviewed many of the people who are responsible for its success. When I am not writing or travelling, I am reading up about the history of HST and the history of astronomy in the time of Hubble.

I have learned many things while working on this book, but perhaps most importantly, I now know that the story of HST is inextricably linked to progress in the field of astronomy as a whole. Images and data sets are now commonly created using data from HST in combination with other space-based observatories such as the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope, and Earth-based telescopes. Many of Hubble’s most famous discoveries in fact involve large teams of astronomers using several instruments.

Now nearing the end of its twenty-sixth year on orbit, Hubble is still operating well with instruments updated as recently as 2009. Scientists are looking forward to using it in tandem with the Webb Telescope, which will operate in the infrared part of the spectrum, once it is launched.

Just a few weeks ago, I spoke to John Grunsfeld, who as an astronaut flew to Hubble three times to repair and update its instruments, and as an astronomer has used HST and the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory to learn about gamma ray bursts. 

"I consistently say that the biggest discovery Hubble has made will be the next one,” Grunsfeld told me before turning to HST’s recent discovery of plumes of water on  Europa, a finding that suggests that the Jovian moon might harbour life. 

Unspoken was the fact that the discoveries will continue after Hubble stops operating because all of the data gathered by HST are available to anyone on its archive. Already more academic papers are coming out of the Hubble archive than from original observations, and the archive will continue to function as a virtual observatory.

Regardless of the fate of the telescope, Hubble’s work will go on well into the future. I won’t likely be around 40 years after my Hubble book comes out, but like my original words on the space telescope in 1976, what I say in the book will need a lot of updating. That's why the documents and interviews from my research will also be archived.

No comments:

Post a Comment