U.S. space agency NASA has announced plans to extend operations of the famous Hubble Space Telescope for another five years, through to June 2021. The last in-flight servicing took place in 2009, and considering it was only expected to operate five more years after that, it’s amazing that it's still going strong seven years later.
Hubble was launched in 1990 and is the most advanced telescope ever. Among lots of other things it has examined the most distant galaxies, allowing scientists to gain a better understanding of the origins of the universe.
Two months after its launch, the Hubble mission appeared to be a fiasco. It was being compared to the Titanic or the Hindenburg, technical feats of the twentieth century that failed miserably shortly after their debut. The telescope was supposed to give an unprecedented sharp view of the universe, but it was cross-eyed: the builder of the mirror had made a mistake. Although the mirror was extremely precise, it didn't have the right size for the Hubble telescope. The telescope saw distant objects distorted, blurred. At the first servicing in 1993, the error was repaired. Hubble got glasses and had a sharp vision again. Its tour of glory could begin.
The idea of an observatory in space had fascinated astronomers for years - the first sketches were drawn in 1972. Away from that annoying atmosphere that provides each constellation with a nasty twinkle. With its 2.4 meter mirror the telescope is nothing special; nowadays, eight or ten meters are standard. Therefore, to observe very faint objects, Hubble has to look at one point for a very long time. But the sharpness of the images is unbeatable. Hubble could, so to speak, read the inscription on a coin three kilometers away from it.
Several refurbishments have contributed to the succes of the telescope, named after the astronomer Edwin Hubble. After it got its glasses in 1993, on subsequent Space Shuttle missions - in 1997, 1999, 2002 and 2009 - the camera was replaced, new solar panels and detection equipment were installed, and the tape recorder was exchanged for a modern computer memory.
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The last visit, in 2009, almost didn't happen. In 2003, there had been another accident involving a shuttle: the Columbia exploded upon reentry in the atmosphere. NASA didn't want to take any risks and scrapped the planned service, because astronauts wouldn't be able to move from the Hubble mission to the International Space Station; the two are too far apart.
Astronomers protested strongly. The Hubble was worth the risk, they thought. But only after public pressure did NASA give in. Thousands of Americans, from amateur astronomers to schoolkids, begged the space agency to preserve "their" Hubble. The telescope was their view of the universe showing them the most wonderful structures, like the Crab Nebula, the Horsehead Nebula and the Pillars of Creation.
Whether Hubble will remain active after 2021 is unknown. NASA has planned to replace it with the so-called James Webb Space Telescope, which will be launched into space in 2018 as the premier observatory of the next decade. While Hubble sees the cosmos in visible and ultraviolet light, JWST operates in the infrared. The various wavelengths can reveal different aspects of stars and galaxies, so using the scopes in tandem will enable astronomers to study the heavens in even greater detail. If NASA leaves Hubble to its fate, it will slowly lower its orbit and eventually burn up in Earth's atmosphere sometime between 2021 and 2032.