The Space Shuttle Atlantis launched today (Monday, 5/11/09, 12:01 pm MDT) on the fourth and (declared) final mission to service the 20-year old Hubble Space Telescope.
Launched in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has opened our eyes to a whole new world of imagery of deep space unlike anything achievable through traditional ground-based telescopes.
After launch, many people complained that the Hubble was immediately ‘broken,’ a colossal waste of money.’ I remember as a young planetarium educator having to explain for those first few years that Hubble was not broken; that although launched with slightly flawed optics, its view of the heavens was still better than any other telescope of the day. After a shaky start, Hubble soon won over media skeptics and critics. Hubble images eventually graced the covers of Time, Newsweek and other non-space publications.
Hubble had since been serviced three time–it was designed to be visited regularly for repairs, upgrades and general maintenance–and with each visit we were amazed at the improvements and the pictures returned. COSTAR was installed to correct the optical imperfections. The original Wide Field Planetary Camera (WFPC) was replaced with WFPC2. A new optical camera, the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) was installed. Each upgrade improved Hubble’s imaging and image.
During this final mission, the astronauts will replace gyroscopes and batteries–rather routine tasks–but will also perform some major technological upgrades to the system. Sensors, circuit boards, spectographs are all set to be replaced or repaired. A new insulation blanket will be installed. But perhaps the most noticeable improvement will be the new imaging camera. The Wide Field Planetary Camera 3 will replace WFPC2. WFPC3 is expected to help us understand better dark matter and dark energy. These upgrades and repairs will once again show us new views of galaxies and nebulae, help us answer questions already asked, and prompt us to ask new questions for future explorers. Eleven days from now, when the shuttle returns, Hubble will have begun her last lap.
Several months of testing will begin, and we look forward with aniticpation at the first public images released by the ‘new’ Hubble telescope. But this writer, for one, is acknowedging ‘the beginning of the end’ of the first great space telescope.