HST’s Next

The Final Servicing Mission for a Venerable Telescope

The Hubble Space Telescope
HST during a 2002 refurbishing mission.

The folks down at the Kennedy Space Center are getting ready to move space shuttle Atlantis out to the pad, in preparation for the May 12 mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope. The crew includes two astronauts who have visited HST before: John Grunsfeld (who has visited HST twice) and Mike Massimino (who is making his second trip to the telescope). They’ll be replacing and repairing faulty components in HST and putting in new science instruments.

The first is the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) (designed by folks in the Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy (CASA) at the University of Colorado (my alma mater for both my degrees) and Ball Aerospace), which will be focusing on light streaming from extremely distant quasars (for example) and studying that light to understand the gases that lie between us and those quasars. It reminds me of egg-candling — a process that I learned as a kid on my grandparents’ farm. You hold up an egg to a light (a candle) and the light streaming through the shell (which is fairly porous to light) highlights what’s inside. We did this to check to see if an egg had been fertilized and had a chick growing inside it. In the case of COS, it will take the light flowing through the gas clouds and dissect it into its component wavelengths. The “fingerprints” of various elements show up when you do that, and the presence of those elements (like hydrogen, oxygen, etc.) tell you something about the cloud. And its history.

The second new instrument to go into HST is the new Wide Field Camera 3 (designed and built at Goddard Space Flight Center and Ball Aerospace. It’s going to be the telescope’s imaging workhorse — and it’s sensitive to some ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths, as well as optical light.  The WFC3 and the Advanced Camera for Surveys, which is a strong optical workhorse in its own right, will work together.  Along with the repaired STIS and the rest of HST’s science complement, the observatory should be ready to go for a number of years, observing the cosmos from above the atmosphere.

It’s kind of a shock to me that the telescope has been on orbit since 1990 — nearly 20 years now.  The day it was launched, I was back in school at CU, studying astronomy and physics and thinking that I’d head into grad school for the Fudd someday. I had been working at CU’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics on comet plasma tail studies and my boss was one of the two principal investigators for HST’s Goddard High Resolution Spectrograph. Eventually I ended up working on that team during grad school.  And, I ended up writing a book with him about the science HST was doing — a project I hatched as a graduate assignment during the dark days when HST’s spherical aberration was giving NASA a black eye.

Behind all the nasty media coverage, a handful of us knew that the telescope was still capable of doing science (albeit with some help) and that’s when I decided I wanted to bring THAT story to life –to counteract all the cutesy, nasty headlines that the media were using in place of actually delving into the truth about HST’s capabilities (even though they were degraded, we could still do work with the telescope). All the astronomy and astrophysics I was studying TOLD me what the scope COULD do, and that data could still be taken with it.  All of my journalistic and writing instincts TOLD me that there was more to the HST story than “Hubble trouble” stories.  And, here we are, nearly two decades and several servicing missions later, about to endow HST with new eyes.  It’s a heckuva story — and I’m pleased to see that it’s going to continue!

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