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Hubble Space Telescope

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The Hubble Space Telescope is a telescope located at the outer edges of Earth's atmosphere, about 600 kilometers above the ground, orbiting the Earth every 100 minutes. It was employed in April 1990 as a joint project of NASA and ESA and has since led to several discoveries in astronomy. It was named in honor of famed American astronomer Edwin Hubble.

Working outside the atmosphere has advantages because the atmosphere obscures images and filters out electromagnetic radiation at certain wavelengths, mainly in the infrared.

Hubble Space Telescope as seen from the Space Shuttle Discovery on mission STS-82[?].

Pictures taken by the Hubble Space Telescope: Clockwise from the upper left, the "Tadpole" galaxy, the "Cone Nebula", two colliding spiral galaxies dubbed "The Mice", and stellar birth in the Omega Nebula. (Images courtesy of NASA)

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Technical description

The unit weighs about 11,000 kilograms, is 13.2 meters long, has a maximum diameter of 4.2 meters and cost US$ 2 billion (2 × 109 dollars). The telescope is a reflector with two mirrors; the main mirror has a diameter of about 2.4 meters. It has various spectrometers and three cameras: one for faint objects in a small field, one wide field camera for planetary pictures, and one infrared camera.

It uses two solar panels to generate electricity, which is mainly needed to power the cameras and the four large flywheels used to orient and stabilize the telescope. The telescope's infrared camera and multi object spectrometer also need to be cooled down to minus 180 degrees Celsius for operation.


  • Hubble provided dramatic pictures of the collision of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 and Jupiter in 1994.
  • Evidence of planets surrounding stars other than the Sun was obtained for the first time with Hubble.
  • Observations with Hubble also showed that the missing dark matter in our galaxy cannot consist solely of faint small stars.
  • Some of the observations leading to the current model of an accelerating universe were performed using the Hubble space telescope.
  • The theory that most galaxies host a black hole in their nucleus has been partially confirmed by many observations.
  • In December 1995, Hubble photographed the Hubble Deep Field, a region covering one 30-millionth of the area of the sky and containing several thousand faint galaxies. A similar patch of southern sky was also imaged and looked remarkably similar, strengthening the position that the Universe is uniform over large scales, and that Earth occupies a typical place in the Universe.

Click here for more (http://hubblesite.org/discoveries/10th/telescope_.and._science/science/overview.shtml)

Launch and initial disappointment

The telescope was launched by Space Shuttle Discovery mission STS-31 on April 24, 1990. This had been postponed from a 1986 launch date by the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in January that year.

The first images back from the telescope were generally regarded as a big disappointment for astronomers and all concerned in the project. They were blurred, and despite image processing could not match the predicted resolution. It was worked out that the main mirror had been ground slightly too flat at the edges, a problem that could have been tested for on the ground if the funds had been available.

Servicing Missions

The telescope has been revisited several times by spacewalking astronauts in space shuttles in order to correct malfunctions and install new equipment. Because of atmospheric drag, the telescope slowly loses height (and gains speed) over time; the shuttle pulls it back to a higher orbit every time it visits.

  • Servicing Mission 1, December 1993 (STS-61[?]) installed several instruments and other equipment. The most important astronomically were: the Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement (COSTAR), which was a set of five corrective mirrors; and the Wide Field/Planetary Camera (WF/PC-II), an upgraded version of the previous ultraviolet detector which also incorporated the corrective optics. On January 13, 1994, NASA declared the mission a complete success, and showed the first of many much sharper images.
  • Servicing Mission 2, February 1997 (STS-82[?]) replaced High Resolution Spectrograph and Faint Object Spectrograph with Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph and added Near Infrared Camera / Multi-Object Spectrograph.
  • Servicing Mission 3A, December 1999 (STS-103[?]) replaced faulty gyroscopes and fine guidance sensors (reusing one returned by SM-1), installed new computer.
  • Servicing Mission 3B, March 2002 (STS-109[?]) repaired and upgraded several items, requiring lengthy and delicate spacewalks. Fixes to the telescope included:
    • Update of its Power Converter Unit, which was particularly tricky as it was not designed for in-orbit replacement, and also required taking the satellite completely off-line for the first time since it was put into operation.
    • Replacement of its solar arrays. The new arrays were derived from those built for the Iridium comsat system. They are only two-thirds the size of the old tattered arrays, resulting in less drag against the tenuous reaches of the upper atmosphere, while providing 30% more power. The additional power will permit all instruments on board the Hubble to be run simultaneously.
    • Replacement of the current "Faint Object Camera (FOC)" with the "Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS)". Both the FOC and the ACS are about the size of a telephone booth.
    • Installation of a mechanical cryocooler unit into the nonfunctioning "Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS)".
    • Replacement of a reaction control wheel.

The completion of this servicing mission, considerably enhanced Hubble's capabilities, some enthusiasts claiming that it is now effectively a "new instrument".

  • Servicing Mission 4, planned for February 2005, is due to be the last servicing mission, as Hubble reaches the end of its life expectancy. However in the aftermath of Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, the timing of future shuttle missions can only be stated tentatively.

The future beyond Hubble

NASA intends to shut down the Hubble in 2010 and to fly the Next Generation Space Telescope[?] (NGST) in 2009. Hubble was designed for 15 years of operation, and it will end up serving for 20.

Now the space agency and the astronomy community have to sit down and figure out what, if anything, should follow the Hubble. The NGST might seem to be the answer to that question, but the NGST will be strictly an infrared telescope, while the Hubble covered the range from the near infrared through the visible into the near ultraviolet.

What complicates the question are the breathtaking advances in Earth-based astronomy since the Hubble was conceived. At that time, the conventional wisdom was that there was no way to make mirrors much bigger for ground-based telescopes, since they wouldn't be able to cool off and stabilize at night before the sun came up. Besides, continuously changing variations in atmospheric seeing would ensure that such bigger telescopes would return images no better than those obtained by smaller telescopes. Building a space telescope seemed to be the only way around these obstacles.

In fact, the obstacles fell more easily than anyone expected. All it required was a different mindset on how to make big telescopes. Instead of building one huge mirror that would take all night to stabilize, modern giant telescopes use smarter schemes. For example, the Keck telescope at Mauna Kea in Hawaii has a 10 meters segmented mirror[?], composed of a mosaic of separate mirrors arranged together and continuously adjusted by a bed of computer controlled actuators to ensure that they maintain their proper shape.

As far as the seeing problem goes, such a telescope can use an adaptive optics system, adjusting the mirrors continuously to compensate for changes in the atmosphere. Furthermore, astronomy organizations have been able to find and make very good use of high, dry sites with excellent seeing, such as Mauna Kea, and the high Atacama Desert[?] in Chile.

This means that there may not really be any need to replace the Hubble to obtain better astronomical imagery in the visible range. The new ground-based telescopes can do the job, and even the most ambitious of them, like the Keck and the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, are much less expensive than the Hubble, and naturally much easier to service and update. For example, the VLT cost was roughly 1/7 of the HST cost, and gave the astronomic community four 8.2 meters telescopes, with a resolution almost as high as the Hubble's one.

Space-based astronomy remains irreplaceable for those wavelengths that are blocked by the atmosphere, such as most of the infrared, and all the ultraviolet, X-ray and Gamma ray regions of the electromagnetic spectrum.

While NASA has long had a good relationship with the astronomy community, the agency's space-based astronomy programs have tended to operate on a parallel, independent track from ground-based astronomy efforts. Some observers believe that NASA and the National Science Foundation, which handles US government-funded ground-based astronomy, will soon be in discussions, and even that eventually both space and ground based astronomy will be directed under the same overall program.

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