Hubble Space Telescope: 26 Years of Cosmic Wonder

Exploring Hubble Space Telescope’s Cosmos

Hubble Space Telescope launch.

Hubble Space Telescope on its way to orbit aboard space shuttle Discovery. Courtesy NASA.

It doesn’t seem all that long ago that Hubble Space Telescope roared into space in the cargo hold of the space shuttle Discovery, but the decades have flown by since that day in 1990.  It’s still going strong and, along with its sister observatories in orbit, teaching us about the cosmos.

I remember reading about the telescope back before I decided to go back to grad school, but never dreamed it would become part of MY life. That changed when I took a job at the University of Colorado Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, under the tutelage of Dr. Jack Brandt (who was Co-PI of the ultraviolet-sensitive Goddard High Resolution Spectrograph onboard HST). As part of my job interview, he mentioned sort of offhandedly that if all went well I’d be working with him and the other students on his team on Hubble “stuff”.

That was in 1988. In 1990, HST was on its way, and a year or so later, I was working with the team on various aspects of dealing with our instrument. It was affected by the spherical aberration, and folks at the Space Telescope Science Institute had figured out ways to “deconvolve” the data to help get rid of the worst effects from the mirror problems.

Fast-forward 26 years, and it seems like HST has always been there and those early problems are now just a footnote in history. The telescope has been repaired and refurbished five times, and continues to crank out observations, essentially on a 24/7/365 schedule. Each week it sends back about 140 gigabytes of data, covering observations of everything from solar system objects to the most distant galaxies and other objects in the universe.

Hubble and Me, Redux

I’ve written before about my experiences with HST before, and the role it played in my life. I have a lot to thank the telescope for, including the things it has shown us. But, also, I got to meet and work with a LOT of really cool and amazing people connected to Hubble. We’re all part of an amazing army of scientists, astronauts, graduate students, technicians and others who have had something to do with the telescope over the years. My job was small — but it paid off with experiences of a lifetime. Not to mention, it was the topic of my master’s thesis!

During the first years the telescope was on orbit, I started working on a book about the scope’s scientific achievements. Together, Jack Brandt and I published three books about HST science between 1995 and 2003. Our book, Hubble Vision was the first one to focus on the science (others had focused on the political and technical problems). We published a second edition a few years later, featuring more great images and science explanations.

Based on that, I then created a series of fulldome (planetarium) shows of the same name, each focused on science delivered by HST.  The latest one, Hubble Vision 2, remains popular with the fulldome community.

My relationship with HST these days is simply to proudly report its findings and privately exult that it’s still flying and delivering great science. Long may she orbit!

My Favorite HST Targets

a Hubble Space Telescope view of the Orion Nebula.

The Orion Nebula as seen by Hubble Space Telescope. Courtesy NASA/ESA/STScI

You would think I’d have an overall favorite HST image put of the many, many that have been published over the years.   It’s tough. Each year, I see new and more fabulous images from the telescope and think, “Wow, it doesn’t get better than this”.  Then, she delivers another one… and another one.

Oh, there are some that really knock my socks off, such as any image of the Orion Nebula. Hubble has peered into the depths of Orion many times during the past 26 years, and each time it delivers another amazing view of starbirth and the possibilities of planets orbiting in the protoplanetary disks surrounding newborn stars. That’s only the nearest of the starbirth factories Hubble has studied, but it’s the one that catches my imagination the most. And don’t even get me started on the views of distant galaxies that this telescope routinely delivers. It blows my mind to think about how each of those galaxies contains worlds with life on them, life that looks back at US and wonders what wonders OUR galaxy contains.

Hubble view of the Bubble Nebula.

The Bubble Nebula, a planetary nebula imaged by Hubble Space Telescope. Courtesy NASA/ESA/STScI

And then, just when I think I’ve seen it all, the telescope delivers another knockout image and I have to reset my list. Like this one of the Bubble Nebula released in time for the 26th anniversary of the launch.

Beyond the pretty pictures, however, HST also delivers the unseen universe to us. Its data contain the ones and zeroes of ultraviolet and infrared emissions, which tell us a complete tale of what’s happening to the objects that are emitting those wavelengths of light. If you want to learn everything there is to know about an object, you have to look at it in all the light it emits — and, you should do it over a long period of time.

That’s what HST supplies for us — at least in optical, infrared, and ultraviolet. Through its eyes, we are seeing out to the most distant reaches of the universe and that’s pretty darned amazing!

Happy Birthday, Hubble Space Telescope!

Honor Mom With a Unique Space Gift

Mars, the Cosmos, and Beyond!

For those of us in the US, Mother’s Day is coming up on May 8th, which is just around the corner. My mom (along with my late father) always encouraged me in my interest in space (although I think she might have wondered a little about how intent I was on it). In return, I always mention how much they did support me (and all of us kids). This year, I’m going to find something really unique to send her — it’s been a rough time for her since my dad died.

What about you? If your mom’s still around, what can you get for her? If you’re a space fan, why not a unique gift that reflects your interest that will also intrigue her at the same time? I’ve heard of people taking their moms to see space-related movies, or visiting the science center or local planetarium. One friend of mine planned a very unique science-themed menu for her special day. They ended the day stargazing from a dark-sky site, and he said his Mom couldn’t stop talking about what a great time they had!

A Mars Map for your Mom, with her name on it!My friends over at have a special Mother’s Day campaign going on that will supply you a  great gift for your Mom. Uwingu, in case you haven’t heard of it before, is a group of scientists and researchers that raises money for science education and research. Over the past couple of years the group has endowed a number of projects, benefitting both scientists and students as they seek to do the work of understanding the cosmos. Uwingu does this in a couple of ways:

  • they’ll sell you the chance to name a crater for Mom on their exclusive Mars map;
  • you can sign Mom up for a daily emailed space image.

The Mars map idea is really cool because you can actually get a certificate showing where her crater is on the map. (I have one for myself, and it pleases me to know that my funds are helping people explore the universe.) The daily email service is really great and the gift that keeps on giving. Not only does she get a great image every day, but the folks at Uwingu explain what the image is and where it was taken. It’s like a little science update, right in her email box.

Today through Mother’s Day on May 8th, Uwingu is offering decorative Mother’s Day certificates for anyone choosing to honor a mom with a named crater on our Mars map. Two certificate options are available: an electronic downloadable version and a beautifully printed and framed keepsake version. Uwingu’s Mars Map will be carried to Mars aboard both the first Mars One robotic lander and also on the Time Capsule to Mars Project. Orders for framed certificates must be made by May 2nd to ensure arrival by Mother’s Day.

Shop the Cosmos

I’ve got a whole bunch of other gift ideas available through an astronomy, science, and science-fiction themed gift shop I set up on It’s called Shop the Cosmos, and you can find books, some astronomy equipment, apparel, music, and jewelry there. In particular, I’ve added a science fiction section because SF is also part of what got me interested in astronomy and space exploration back when I was a kid. I’ll be adding cool products as I find them, so keep checking back! And, I’m happy to take recommendations!

Lovin’ Mom Doesn’t Have to Cost Money

As always, the best gifts don’t always have be things you buy, particularly if your budget is a bit tight.  Spend time with Mom…give her call, drop her an email, send her a text, or whatever you can do to let her know you’re thinking of her. For that, you don’t even need to wait until Mother’s Day.

Hi Mom!!