The US-based Science Channel will be showing the last mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope live. The mission is the last of its kind in a prolonged service regime planned for the telescope, after a global campaign to prevent the project’s premature cancellation. The Hubble Space Telescope is the single most successful technical instrument in terms of producing new discoveries from probing the distant universe.
NASA lists the “top five discoveries” made by use of the Hubble Space Telescope. All involve the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2, and all give us vital background information on the evolution of stars, star systems and the life of the universe itself. Our understanding of general cosmology, and of physics at the interstellar and quantum levels, has been vastly expanded due to the hundreds of major discoveries achieved with this instrument.
One of the most visually startling of NASA’s top five was the Hubble Deep Field image: published in 1996, the “deepest” photograph ever taken of the remote universe showed hundreds of galaxies never before known of by science. That single image drastically reoriented the outlook of the human scientist toward deep space, changing important assumptions about scale and density across the ancient universe.
NASA’s own write-up of the top five reads as follows:
Deepest photograph of the universe. Hubble’s famous “Deep Field” picture (above), taken by the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2, left the world with its mouth agape when it was first revealed in 1996. In just a small patch of sky, more than 1,000 galaxies located billions of light-years away could be seen floating in space like sea creatures at the bottom of an endless ocean. Our world and our galaxy suddenly seemed very small.
Observations of comet collision with Jupiter. The Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 gave the world a rare, stunning view of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 plunging into the gas giant Jupiter in 1994. The images revealed the event in great detail, including ripples expanding outward from the impact.
The birth and death of stars. The Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 brought the cosmos down to Earth with its exquisite pictures of stars in all stages of development. Its famed picture of the “Pillars of Creation” and other images of colorful dying stars offered the first, glorious views of a star’s life. The camera also took the first pictures of the dusty disks around stars where planets are born, demonstrating that planet-forming environments are common in the universe.
The age and rate of expansion of our universe. Our universe formed from a colossal explosion known as the Big Bang, and has been stretching apart ever since. Hubble’s Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2, by observing stars that vary periodically in brightness, was able to calculate the pace of this expansion to an unprecedented degree of error of 10 percent. The camera also played a leading role in discovering that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, driven by a mysterious force called “dark energy.” Together, these findings led to the calculation that our universe is approximately 13.7 billion years old.
Most galaxies harbor huge black holes. Before Hubble, astronomers suspected, but had no proof, that supermassive black holes lurk deep in the bellies of galaxies. The Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2, together with spectroscopy data from Hubble, showed that most galaxies in the universe do indeed harbor monstrous black holes up to billions of times the mass of our sun.
The mission is needed to keep the telescope working, as a key technical failure in October has interrupted its full functioning capacity. The launch has been delayed for months, and there is now a launch-date set for one week from today. As MSNBC reports:
After months of delay, NASA’s space shuttle Atlantis is just one week away from launching seven eager astronauts to give the iconic Hubble Space Telescope one last makeover.
Atlantis is poised to rocket toward Hubble at 2:01 p.m. ET on May 11 with a mix of veteran Hubble mechanics and first-time spacefliers on board. The mission, NASA’s final repair flight to Hubble, has been delayed since October, when a critical component on the space telescope failed.
The mission will consist of 5 spacewalks over an 11-day period. Reparis will be aimed at extending Hubble’s life at least through 2014 and will include “add new instruments, replace old batteries and gyroscopes and make vital repairs, including some to equipment that was never designed to be fixed in space”.
Commander Scott Altman will be returning to Hubble on this, his fourth spaceflight. He will pilot the space shuttle Atlantis in a repeat of his last flight, in 2002, which was Hubble’s most recent service mission. After 19 years on the job, the Hubble is still considered viable for at least 5 more years, and may last another 7 to 10.
The longevity of complex instruments in space is notoriously hard to predict: while minor mathematical mistakes caused two Mars rovers to disappear (presumably crashes on landing), other rovers have continued working long after they were supposed to have shut down, and deep space probes have continued sending images and signals long after they were supposed to have lost power or radio-contact.
The shuttle mission itself remains a potential risk, with millions of potential malfunctions that could pose obstacles to the safe return of the shuttle. In order to avoid the potential for astronauts being stranded on the shuttle with too few supplies to last more than a few weeks, a second shuttle, the Endeavor, is prepared for lift-off in case of a distress call from the Atlantis, or should there be any evidence the shuttle was damaged while exiting Earth’s atmosphere.