Thursday, July 2, 2009

Hubble Space Telescope

The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) is a space telescope that was carried into orbit by the space shuttle in April 1990. It is named after the American astronomer Edwin Hubble. Although not the first space telescope, the Hubble is one of the largest and most versatile, and is well-known as both a vital research tool and a public relations boon for astronomy. The HST is a collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency, and is one of NASA's Great Observatories, along with the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and the Spitzer Space Telescope.

Space telescopes were proposed as early as 1923. The Hubble was funded in the 1970s, with a proposed launch in 1983, but the project was beset by technical delays, budget problems, and the Challenger disaster. When finally launched in 1990, scientists found that the main mirror had been ground incorrectly, severely compromising the telescope's capabilities. However, after a servicing mission in 1993, the telescope was restored to its intended quality. Hubble's orbit outside the distortion of Earth's atmosphere allows it to take extremely sharp images with almost no background light. Hubble's Ultra Deep Field image, for instance, is the most detailed visible-light image ever made of the universe's most distant objects. Many Hubble observations have led to breakthroughs in astrophysics, such as accurately determining the rate of expansion of the universe.

The Hubble is the only telescope ever designed to be serviced in space by astronauts. There have been five servicing missions, the last occurring in May 2009. Servicing Mission 1 took place in December 1993 when Hubble's imaging flaw was corrected. Servicing missions 2, 3A, and 3B repaired various sub-systems and replaced many of the observing instruments with more modern and capable versions. However, following the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident, the fifth servicing mission was canceled on safety grounds. After spirited public discussion, NASA reconsidered this decision, and administrator Mike Griffin approved one final Hubble servicing mission. STS-125 was launched in May 2009, and installed two new instruments and made numerous repairs. Assuming testing and calibration of the new equipment goes well, the Hubble should resume routine operation in September 2009.

The latest servicing should allow the telescope to function until at least 2014, when its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), is due to be launched. The JWST will be far superior to Hubble for many astronomical research programs, but will only observe in infrared, so it will complement (not replace) Hubble's ability to observe in the visible and ultraviolet parts of the spectrum.

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