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The Hubble Telescope

In this chapter, you will find information about the Hubble telescope. Specifically, this chapter describes the initial uses of the telescope, the spectacular findings made using this tool, how Hubble works, and the future of this amazing piece of equipment. There is even a podcast that simulates the sounds the telescope makes!

The Telescope


Since the earliest days of astronomy, since the time of Galileo, astronomers have shared a single goal — to see more, see farther, see deeper.

The Hubble Space Telescope's launch in 1990 sped humanity to one of its greatest advances in that journey. Hubble is a telescope that orbits Earth. Its position above the atmosphere, which distorts and blocks the light that reaches our planet, gives it a view of the universe that typically far surpasses that of ground-based telescopes.

Hubble is one of NASA's most successful and long-lasting science missions. It has beamed hundreds of thousands of images back to Earth, shedding light on many of the great mysteries of astronomy. Its gaze has helped determine the age of the universe, the identity of quasars, and the existence of dark energy.

Hubble Telescope's Discoveries and Contributions

Hubble's discoveries have transformed the way scientists look at the universe. Its ability to show the universe in unprecedented detail has turned astronomical conjectures into concrete certainties. It has winnowed down the collection of theories about the universe even as it sparked new ones, clarifying the path for future astronomers.

Among its many discoveries, Hubble has revealed the age of the universe to be about 13 to 14 billion years, much more accurate than the old range of anywhere from 10 to 20 billion years. Hubble played a key role in the discovery of dark energy, a mysterious force that causes the expansion of the universe to accelerate.
Hubble has shown scientists galaxies in all stages of evolution, including toddler galaxies that were around when the universe was still young, helping them understand how galaxies form.
It found protoplanetary disks, clumps of gas and dust around young stars that likely function as birthing grounds for new planets. It discovered that gamma-ray bursts — strange, incredibly powerful explosions of energy — occur in far-distant galaxies when massive stars collapse. And these are only a handful of its many contributions to astronomy.

The sheer amount of astronomy based on Hubble observations has also helped make it one of history's most important observatories. More than 6,000 scientific articles have been published based on Hubble data.

Click here for more amazing pictures from Hubble!

How it Works
How it Works

How it Works!

Every 97 minutes, Hubble completes a spin around Earth, moving at the speed of about five miles per second (8 km per second) — fast enough to travel across the United States in about 10 minutes. As it travels, Hubble's mirror captures light and directs it into its several science instruments.

Hubble is a type of telescope known as a Cassegrain reflector. Light hits the telescope's main mirror, or primary mirror. It
Birth of a star
bounces off the primary mirror and encounters a secondary mirror. The secondary mirror focuses the light through a hole in the center of the primary mirror that leads to the telescope's science instruments.

People often mistakenly believe that a telescope's power lies in its ability to magnify objects. Telescopes actually work by collecting more light than the human eye can capture on its own. The larger a telescope's mirror, the more light it can collect, and the better its vision. Hubble's primary mirror is 94.5 inches (2.4 m) in diameter. This mirror is small compared with those of current ground-based telescopes, which can be 400 inches (1,000 cm) and up, but Hubble's location beyond the atmosphere gives it remarkable clarity.

Future Plans

Hubble's next servicing mission was scheduled for 2006. But on February 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia, returning from a research mission, broke apart while re-entering Earth's atmosphere.

Shuttles were grounded. Then-NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe called the Hubble mission off, citing the safety guidelines that had been developed following the Columbia tragedy. Current NASA Administrator Mike Griffin revisited the cancellation upon his appointment in 2005, and expressed support for another mission. On October 31, 2006, he announced that Hubble will be serviced again. The mission is scheduled for August 28, 2008 and should extend Hubble's life into at least 2013.

In the meantime, Hubble continues to beam images of the heavens back to Earth, transferring about 120 gigabytes of data every week. Scientists continue to churn out research based on Hubble's observations.

Hubble's successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), is currently in the works. JWST will study objects from the earliest universe, objects whose light has "redshifted," or stretched into infrared light.

From its orbit 940,000 miles (1.5 million km) away from Earth, JWST will unveil secrets about the birth of stars, solar systems, and galaxies by peering through the dust that blocks visible light. The telescope is scheduled to launch in 2013

Eagle Nebula

Eventually, Hubble's time will end. In the years after the 2008 servicing mission, Hubble's components will slowly degrade to the point at which the telescope stops working.

When that happens, Hubble will continue to orbit the Earth until its orbit decays, allowing it to spiral toward Earth. Astronauts or a robotic mission could either bring Hubble back to Earth or crash it safely into the ocean.

But Hubble's legacy — its discoveries, its trailblazing design, its success in showing us the universe in unparalleled detail — will live on. Scientists will rely on Hubble's revelations for years as they continue in their quest to understand the cosmos — a quest that has attained clarity, focus, and triumph through Hubble's rich existence.

This podcast provides and example of what the Hubble telescope sounds like at launch!