Hubble's Cosmic Comeback: NASA Releases New Images

NASA reveals images from newly refurbished telescope.

ByABC News
September 8, 2009, 1:36 PM

Sept. 9, 2009— -- NASA's "comeback kid" has done it again.

After astronauts of the space shuttle Atlantis made a risky servicing mission in May, the Hubble Space Telescope is back and better than ever, once again capturing astonishing images of the cosmos and sending them back to Earth.

Today, NASA released images from the newly refurbished telescope, confirming that Atlantis' mission was a success.

It had been seven years since astronauts had serviced Hubble. It was designed for routine upgrades, but this year's mission had been delayed -- and, for a couple of years, canceled -- in the wake of the 2003 Columbia disaster. By the time Atlantis arrived, Hubble was on its last legs.

Two instruments were completely out of service, and several components, including batteries and gyroscopes, needed replacing.

"To say Hubble was limping is probably an understatement," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for science at NASA. "It was limping. It really needed this mission."

In a high-speed, high-risk dance hundreds of miles above Earth, astronauts replaced sensors, removed blown circuit boards and made many repairs to bring several instruments back to life.

And it appears the gamble was worth it.

"You know, the proof is really in the pudding when we get to see those pictures because that's why we went, to expand Hubble's discovery potential," said astronaut Scott Altman, commander of Atlantis' mission. "And to see the discoveries come down as a direct result of the work that everyone did to make that possible, I think, is extremely rewarding."

The new repairs could give the telescope up to 10 more years of life, Weiler said.

"We think of it as a new beginning. It's not a 19-year-old telescope," he said. "It's a new telescope again. It's like taking your old car into the shop and having new tires, new engine, and a new paint job."

And, Altman said, the servicing mission expanded the Hubble's power.

"It has just extended its reach so it can take more observations, spend less time pointing at something to get the same amount of information, and just really dramatically expanded the amount of scientific data and incredible pictures that can come down to the ground for our research and enjoyment," he said.

But there's more to this groundbreaking telescope than you might think.

In honor of it's latest comeback, here are 10 things you probably don't know yet about Hubble.

1. NASA's "Comeback Kid" started out as a failure.

Now, it's an international sensation, widely known as the "people's telescope." But that wasn't always the case.

"It is now viewed as this unqualified success that has transformed our knowledge of the universe," said Roger Launius, senior curator for the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. "I've heard it compared to, in terms of its impacts, the same level of change as when Galileo first turned his homemade telescope on Jupiter in 1609."

But "the telescope began life being viewed as a flop," he said.

A measuring error in the grinding of the mirror prevented the telescope from focusing light properly. As a result, soon after its launch in April 1990, the photos sent back to Earth were fuzzy disappointments.

The mirror was ever so slightly the wrong shape, which caused light that bounced off the center of the mirror to focus in a different place than the light bouncing off the edge. The flaw was minuscule -- 1/50th the thickness of a sheet of paper -- but it made a significant difference.

"[There were] NASA scientists that stood up and said, "It's a total loss," Launius said.

Members of Congress, including Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who was, and still is, a big NASA supporter, were livid that this had taken place.

"This was such a failure, to the tune of $3 billion," Launius said.

Thankfully, the telescope's first servicing mission in December 1993 was a success. After spending 11 months training for what is considered to be one of the most complex missions, astronauts installed a series of small mirrors to fix the flaw.

"They had figured out some ways to work around that problem," Launius said. "But it took a while to generate some of the images that we've seen."

4. Hubble's namesake almost chose the law over astronomy.

When the U.S. Postal Service released a special 41-cent for Edwin Hubble in 2008, they called him a "pioneer of the distant stars."

But Hubble was close to choosing another path for himself. Born in Missouri in 1889, Hubble studied math and astronomy as an undergrad but then went on to study law as one of the first Rhode Scholars at Oxford University.

He reportedly moved to Kentucky to practice law. But the pull of the cosmos was too great. Hubble spent most of his career at California's Mt. Wilson observatory.

He is credited with many discoveries but most notably for observing that the farther apart galaxies are from each other, the faster they move away from each other. Based on this, Hubble concluded that the universe expands uniformly.

When the Hubble Space Telescope launched, one of its goals was to figure out this expansion rate, called the Hubble Constant.

Science aside, many of Hubble's images are astoundingly beautiful. The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore displayed a number of Hubble's iconic images last year in the exhibit "Mapping the Cosmos: Images from the Hubble Space Telescope."

More than 20 images were on display at the museum.

"It is really gratifying to see these pictures, constructed from Hubble's science data, among the beautiful, classical art in the Walters Art Museum," Zoltan Levay, senior image processor at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, said at the time. "I hope visitors can enjoy the images as photographs of the cosmic landscapes, but also as artistic abstractions from nature."

7. It has more than 3 billion miles under its belt.

Every 96 minutes, Hubble makes one orbit around Earth. In its lifetime, it has circled Earth more than 100,000 times, traveling about 5 miles per second. In all, the space telescope has traveled more than 3 billion miles, which is about the distance from Earth to Pluto.

8. Scientists have to apply for QT with the HST.

Everyone wants a piece of the Hubble, but it only has 3,000 available hours each year. To divvy up the time, a panel of internationally renowned scientists at the Space Telescope Science Institute reviews proposals submitted by teams of scientists around the world.

"The proposals are ranked according to, in their opinion, what is the most challenging, the most important, what science can be gained from these proposals," said Cheryl Gundy, the institute's deputy news manager. "The director of the institute makes the final decision, parceling out the Hubble's time."

Some teams may only get a couple of minutes with the telescope, but even a window of time that small is highly coveted.

9. As far as telescopes go, Hubble is only average-sized.

It looks large when we see the school-bus sized telescope next to the floating astronauts. But NASA scientists say it's actually not that big for a telescope.

Hubble's primary mirror is about 8 feet in diameter, much smaller than the 34-foot mirror in the world's largest telescope, the Great Canary Telescope on the island of La Palma, part of the Canary Islands. The mirror for the Keck telescope in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, is about 25 feet.

"It's very average," said Malcolm Niedner, the Hubble deputy senior project scientist. "I'd love to have it in my backyard but it's not a large telescope."

But Hubble makes up for its size with incredible optics and design. Most importantly, Niedner said, its placement outside Earth's atmosphere enables it to see greater distances with greater clarity than any other telescope.

As opposed to Hubble's humble 350 mile orbit, the Webb telescope will orbit 1 million miles from Earth, which means that the days of risky servicing missions, for better or for worse, will end with Hubble.

But the telescope, named for James E. Webb, NASA's second administrator, will be able to explore the most distant galaxies and give scientists even more information about the earliest moments of the universe.