It’s as long as a school bus and weighs as much as two elephants. Hurtling through space at a rate of 5 miles per second, the Hubble Space Telescope is quietly doing its solitary work 330 miles above Earth’s surface, even as the space shuttles that keep it in working order pass into retirement.
You see, when space shuttle Atlantis returns to Earth later this month, marking the final flight of the U.S. space shuttle program, Hubble will be stranded.
“We can’t service it anymore. When (Atlantis) lands, it will be the last shuttle mission ever, and we needed the shuttles to service Hubble,” says retired NASA engineer Russell L. Werneth.
Werneth will speak July 22 and 23 at the Arizona Museum of Natural History in conjunction with a new exhibition, “Hubble Space Telescope: New Views of the Universe.”
The exhibition immerses visitors in the mission of the famous telescope, just at a strange point in history when Hubble begins to outlive the space shuttles it was built to work with.
A scale model of Hubble is the focal point of the installation. Stations dubbed “satellites” incorporate hands-on activities about how the telescope works. Other sections show off astronauts’ tools and detail Hubble’s contributions to the exploration of planets, stars and galaxies.
“There are five panels about 6 feet tall and 9 feet wide, and they’re backlit pictures that Hubble has taken. They’re just total eye candy,” says Kathy Eastman, the museum’s curator of education.
Images and data captured by Hubble have transformed the way scientists look at the universe, says Werneth, who trained astronauts and provided mission support from Earth for five manned missions to repair and upgrade the telescope, which was launched in 1990.
“It’s been such a tremendous, powerful telescope. It changed so much in science, from what we know about the universe, star formations, star death, the age of the universe, big bang theory, black hole theory. It’s added so much to what we know about space,” he says.
According to the NASA-administered HubbleSite.org, Hubble has helped scientists determine the age of the universe, played a key role in the discovery of dark energy, shown scientists galaxies in all stages of evolution and found likely birthing grounds for new planets. Every day, the telescope transmits enough data to Earth to fill six CD-ROMs. More than 6,000 scientific articles have been published as a result of information it’s captured.
Like the space shuttle program, Hubble’s time will come to an end. But its passing will likely happen far away from media cameras and space enthusiasts, partially out in space and partially at sea.
“When it essentially is at its end of life, when it isn’t capable of bringing science back anymore, we’ll have to go back for it, most likely with a robotic vehicle or perhaps something we haven’t even thought of yet, and attach to the bottom of it and drag it back to drop in the ocean,” Werneth says.
Werneth estimates it could last five to 15 more years, but the telescope could surprise us.
“We never know because it depends on what might break or fail, and even then, if one component fails, other things will keep working. The original batteries were still working on our last mission to Hubble two years ago, but we decided to replace them, knowing that we might never get back there. The new ones might last another 19 years,” he says.
The exhibition includes a look at the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to Hubble, which is projected to launch sometime after 2015 if funding is available.
The Hubble show was organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and the Space Telescope Science Institute. It’s on loan from the Hubble Project Office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Eastman says “Hubble” has come to Mesa at an opportune time.
“People have been reading about space and the shuttle program in the newspapers and seeing it in the news, and this is their chance to meet a real NASA scientist in their backyard. It’s a wonderful coincidence of timing to be able to explore a telescope that pushes the frontiers of science and space while another part of the space program is ending. With Hubble, there’s that element of something new and different being discovered all the time, and that’s always exciting.”
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