Good news, Hubble lovers! NASA has announced that the Hubble Space Telescope will remain operational through April 30, 2016. That’s right, three more years of Hubble awesomeness! The extension will cost NASA a grand total of 76-million dollars, but that is sure to be money very well spent.
While we look forward to Hubble’s future, let’s take a trip down memory lane to appreciate all of the amazing things that fantastic observatory has done for science.
Hubble was put into orbit in 1990 and specializes in observing near ultraviolet, visible, and near infrared wavelengths. The telescope is named after the famous astronomer Edwin Hubble. The telescope has upheld its name-legacy by being one of the most important observational tools in modern science and human history. Over 9,000 papers have been published as a result of data collected by Hubble. The entire Hubble project, from construction to 2010, is estimated to be about 10-billion US dollars – or about 500-million a year since its launch in 1990 to 2010.
In my opinion, Hubble’s greatest scientific accomplishment has actually had very little to do with science. Hubble is an icon on the same scale as the International Space Station and the Apollo 11 moon landing. Hubble has brought the beauty of the cosmos to the general public in an astonishing way. Go ahead and think about your top ten favorite space images. I’m willing to bet that if you find out what took those most, if not all, of those images came from Hubble. Hubble has served as an inspiration to an entire generation of children – I myself, am one of them. That kind of accomplishment, getting young people involved in science, helps to move science forward in ways beyond any measurement you can make or any theory you can discover. Without a future generation of scientists, science can’t move forward…Hubble has helped in unimaginable ways to help secure that future.
Hubble has been instrumental in measuring the Hubble constant – the value of the speed at which the universe is expanding. Hubble helped to confirm the universe was expanding, giving credence to the big bang theory, helping us to estimate the age of the universe, and generally helping to give supporting evidence to our current cosmological model. Today, we have more accurate measurements of the Hubble constant and the age of the universe taken by telescopes that were launched after Hubble.
One of Hubble’s most well-known pictures is the Hubble Deep Field (the Hubble Ultra Deep Field and the Hubble eXtreme Deep Field being pictures in the same category). This trio of pictures, among others, helped to give scientists an idea of how galaxies evolved. I heard it explained once that telescopes pre-dating Hubble allowed us to see adult galaxies, and Hubble gave us the ability to see teenage and child galaxies as it peers a maximum of 13.2 billion years into the past. Building on that same picture, the James Webb Telescope is expected to reveal the nature of the universe’s infant galaxies as well as the universe’s first stars.
Today, scientists believe that the center of every galaxy contains a supermassive black hole – a black hole billions of times more massive than our Sun and widely responsible for holding the galaxy together. Why do scientists say this? Because after observing dozens of galaxies, Hubble confirmed the existence of supermassive black holes present in every one it observed. Hubble also revealed that the mass of the supermassive black hole in the galactic center is proportional to the mass of the galactic bulge.
Our current model for the formation of planets was formed and molded based on observations made from Hubble. Before the telescope was launched, our solar formation theories were basically guesses – grant it, guesses using mathematics and fluid dynamics, but a big fat guess nonetheless. Hubble helped us to correct the model making it more accurate as we observed star forming regions in the cosmos. Of course, this helps us to understand how our solar system came to be.
OK, I just used that phrase because it’s freaking awesome. Hubble managed to perform the first analysis of the atmosphere of an exoplanet. Basically, the telescoped watched a planetary transit and provided an analysis of the light that passed through the planet’s atmosphere.
Hubble has helped to confirm the existence of dark matter – the mysterious invisible substance that makes up 23% of the universe. Hubble has helped scientists compile large-scale maps of dark matter in the universe, proved that dark matter exerts normal gravity (as opposed to something else), and generally modify models to help scientists understand what this stuff is.
This is a dark stain on Hubble’s pristine history. The observatory has given us the most detailed images of the distant dwarf planet and also helped astronomers to discover Nix and Hydra, two of Pluto’s moons. In addition, data received from Hubble helped scientists to make the decision to demote Pluto and create the dwarf planet category.
I can’t possibly list all of Hubble’s accomplishments, for they are many and great. Those are just some of my personal favorites. One of Hubble’s greatest accomplishments is the fact that it’s still there. After 23-years and give service and upgrade missions, the telescope continues to operate, reveal the secrets of the universe, and inspire millions. The men and women who have spent a countless number of hours designing, building, launching, operating, and servicing Hubble have clearly not wasted their time and created a global treasure.
Hubble belongs to the people of Earth, the human race, as our species searches for the answers to the deepest and most profound questions about our existence, where we came from, and the nature of life, the universe, and everything.