April 24, 1990, is very important for astronomers. After years of planning and development, a telescope was finally launched to orbit the Earth.
It was largely an experiment, and little was expected of it during its 10-year lifespan.
But, in the 25 years that it has been orbiting the Earth, Hubble has surprised us not only with its longevity but has also become one of the most important science projects ever for mankind. From groundbreaking discoveries and historic photos of planets, galaxies, nebulae, space dust and so much more, it has been an astronomer’s delight.
The Story Of Hubble
Astronomers had always worried that our Earth’s atmosphere distorted any observations of space when using ground telescopes. The idea of a telescope in space was born in the 1940s. However, it would be 1970 by the time NASA collaborated with European Space Agency (ESA) to get the first instruments and solar panels for Hubble - named after astronomer Edwin Powell Hubble.
The construction of the space telescope was anything but smooth. It stopped several times due to technical and production issues. Finally, in April 1990, Hubble blasted off into space, and it wasn’t exactly a fairy tale ending, yet.
After Hubble had eased itself into orbit and fired its mirrors, it began beaming back images of space. Scientists quickly realized that there was something terribly wrong with the telescope. The photos came out fuzzy. The telescope mirrors had a barely noticeable, yet serious optical defect. The outer edge of the mirror was too flat by the depth of just four microns – less than the thickness of a strand of hair!
Luckily, Hubble was designed to be repaired and upgraded while in orbit. In December 1993, a crew flew out from the ISS to attach additional mirrors to the giant telescope. It was an extreme technical challenge. The mirrors had to be packed in a box the size of a phone booth to survive the space launch. Astronauts space walked and installed it using a robot arm in a zero-gravity space environment. Four other servicing missions have been sent up to the Hubble since.
Thanks to Hubble, NASA, ESA, as well as researchers from around the world, now have a better view of the universe, distant galaxies, and black holes. We have a better understanding of the age of our universe - around 13.7 billion years, and have figured that there is likely an ocean under Jupiter’s biggest moon. We also now know that there is dark matter in the universe, which makes up three-quarters of the universe’s mass!
But Hubble’s utility does not stop there. The 'da Vinci' surgical robot and Canada’s 'neuroArm' were inspired by Hubble's robotic arm technology. The Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph on the Hubble inspired the development of breast cancer-detecting equipment. It has even provided technology for an advanced blade-sharpening tool for ice skates!
Certainly, Hubble will not last forever. To extend and complement the discoveries made by Hubble, scientists are making plans to launch the James Webb Telescope in October 2018.