Hubble’s Long Journey

A Mission to the Cosmos

Planetary Nebula K 4-55, a sunlike star that is going through its final death throes before ending up as a white dwarf. This image was taken with the WFPC2, the longest-serving instrument on Hubble Space Telescope. It is due to be removed by the servicing mission astronauts and returned to Earth. The planetary nebula consists of the hot star at the center, which is ionizing (heating up) layers of gas surrounding it, causing them to glow. (Click to embiggen.)

Later today, the space shuttle Atlantis takes off on the final refurbishing mission to Hubble Space Telescope.  I’d like to be down there for the launch, but with work deadlines and a possible move in the offing, I’ll be watching it on my computer linked to NASA TV’s web site. My folks are down there to watch the launch — a first for them.

It seems like another lifetime when HST first went up to orbit in 1990. I was just about to go into grad school and had been working as a sort of adjunct member of a Hubble instrument team (the Goddard High Resolution Spectrograph). I don’t think it entered my mind at that time to think that I would spend a lot of time writing about HST in two books and a couple of versions of a planetarium show. Nor that a video we produced about HST would win an award for science communication.  Nor that every week or so I would head over to HST’s web site and see yet another gorgeous view of the cosmos — and grab those images for lectures that I would give. Or that this telescope, which was only going to be up a few years would still be charging ahead 19 years later.  But hey — it’s NASA.  When they build something, it usually lasts even if it does need to be refurbed every so often. Or, if that can’t happen, the engineers  find a way to fix it long distance (Voyager 2’s scan platform or the tweaking of the Spirit Rover on Mars. Or the Galileo triumph despite the antenna issues.

So, today’s launch is a great leap forward, the mission will bring HST an additional few years of useful life to a telescope that has literally changed our view of the cosmos — transformed our perceptions of what is happening out there.  To the crew of Atlantis I say — go get ’em!!!

Added note: to celebrate this launch, Stuart Atkinson over at Cumbrian Sky has posted a lovely space poem about the space telescope. Check it out!

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