Happy Birthday Hubble
Launch of Space Shuttle for the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope Credit: NASA & ESA

Happy Birthday Hubble

24/04/2020Written by Malika Andress

Thirty years ago Hubble became the first major optical telescope to be placed in space.

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Thirty years ago Hubble became the first major optical telescope to be placed in space.
The Hubble Space Telescope as seen from the departing Space Shuttle Atlantis, flying STS-125, HST Servicing Mission 4. Credits: NASA

On April 24, 1990, the space shuttle Discovery lifted off from Earth with its precious cargo, the Hubble Space Telescope. The next day, astronauts released the telescope into space to begin its journey of discovery. No one could have predicted what wonders Hubble would see in the 30 years that followed. From our own cosmic backyard to the far reaches of the universe, Hubble showed us properties of space and time that for most of human history could only be imagined.

What is Hubble?

What is Hubble?
Edwin Hubble stands by the 48-inch telescope at Palomar Observatory. Credits: Carnegie Institution of Washington

Hubble is the first major optical telescope to be placed in space. Above the distortion of the atmosphere, far above rain clouds and light pollution, Hubble has an unobstructed view of the universe. Scientists have used Hubble to observe the most distant stars and galaxies as well as the planets in our solar system.

Hubble features a 2.4-meter (7.9 ft) mirror, and its four main instruments observe in the ultraviolet, visible, and near infrared regions of the electromagnetic spectrum. It has recorded some of the most detailed visible light images, allowing a deep view into space. Many Hubble observations have led to breakthroughs in astrophysics, such as determining the rate of expansion of the universe.

Hubble’s launch in April 1990 marked the most significant advance in astronomy since Galileo’s telescope. Thanks to five servicing missions and more than 25 years of operation, our view of the universe and our place within it has never been the same.

Hubble is named after Edwin Powell Hubble, an American astronomer who played a crucial role in establishing the fields of extragalactic astronomy and observational cosmology and is regarded as one of the most important astronomers of all time.

What has Hubble achieved?

What has Hubble achieved?
Astronauts Steven L. Smith and John M. Grunsfeld replace gyroscopes during Servicing Mission 3A in December 1999. Credits: NASA

Hubble has reinvigorated and reshaped our perception of the cosmos and uncovered a universe of unexpected wonders. Hubble has revealed properties of space and time that for most of human history were only probed in the imaginations of scientists and philosophers. Today, Hubble continues to provide views of cosmic wonders never before seen and is at the forefront of many new discoveries:

  • Thanks in part to the Hubble Space Telescope, we know the universe is 13.7 billion years old.
  • The Hubble Space Telescope has helped scientists determine the process of how planets are born.
  • We now know that nearly all galaxies may harbour supermassive black holes.
  • The Hubble Space Telescope detected the first organic molecule discovered on a planet outside our solar system.
  • The Hubble Space Telescope detected a distant supernova that suggests the universe only recently began speeding up.

Who 'owns' Hubble?

Who 'owns' Hubble?
2019 view of Saturn Credits: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (GSFC), M.H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley), and the OPAL Team

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD., manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, MD., conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., in Washington, DC.

As lead agency, NASA has overall responsibility for the Hubble Space Telescope.  ESA’s contributions to HST include among other things, the Faint Object Camera, the first two solar wings that powered the spacecraft and a team of space scientists and engineers at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, MD.  Europe’s contribution to HST entitles European astronomers to 15% of the telescope’s observing time.

What next for Hubble?

What next for Hubble?
James Webb Space Telescope Mirror inside a clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Credit: NASA/Desiree Stover

In 2013, deputy project manager James Jeletic projected that Hubble could survive into the 2020s and in June 2016 NASA extended the service contract for Hubble until June 2021.

Hubble orbits the Earth in the extremely tenuous upper atmosphere, and over time its orbit decays due to drag. If not reboosted, it will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere within some decades, with the exact date depending on how active the Sun is and its impact on the upper atmosphere.

NASA’s original plan for safely de-orbiting Hubble was to retrieve it using a space shuttle. This is no longer possible since the space shuttle fleet has been retired. Instead, NASA considered adding an external propulsion module to allow controlled re-entry.

Plans for a Hubble successor culminated in plans for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the formal successor of Hubble.

This montage of more than 600 images from the Hubble Space Telescope celebrates the telescope’s 30 years of discovery. Though numerous, these images are just a glimpse of the data collected by Hubble over the past 30 years, and only a tiny sliver of our vast universe.

Thanks to Hubblesite there are a huge array of resources you can find on their website to support further learning.

NASA, ESA, G. Illingworth and D. Magee (University of California, Santa Cruz), K. Whitaker (University of Connecticut), R. Bouwens (Leiden University), P. Oesch (University of Geneva), and the Hubble Legacy Field team

Video credits: NASA, ESA, D. Player, J. DePasquale, and M. Carruthers (STScI); Music: J. DePasquale


Words and images for this blog have been compiled from NASA, Hubblesite and Wikipedia.