Like many of the great feats of space exploration, the Hubble Space telescope has a long history. Named after Edwin Hubble, the famous astronomer, the telescope was finally launched in 1990; after years of delays and forced cancellations due to issues such as the Challenger disaster of 1986. Although the technology used within the Hubble telescope was and remains some of the most advanced optics that have yet been developed, the idea for a space based telescope was planned long before the telescope itself was officially designed or launched. As such, this brief analysis will consider the initial need and desire for such an instrument, development of the telescope, launch and operation use, breakthroughs in astrophysics and astronomy that have since been able to be uncovered by means of the Hubble Space Telescope, and future outlook for the Hubble as well as other planned space telescopes.
Although certainly not the first astronomer to note the need for a space based telescope, Hermann Olberth formerly iterated his desire to see such a plan put into implementation as early as 1923. The ultimate reason behind such a bold and technologically challenging plan was the need to get beyond earth’s inner atmosphere as a means to reduce the level of light and environmental pollutants and/or dust that so strongly influenced the quality of astronomical work that could be performed with traditional earth based telescopes. Recognizing these limitations, astronomers such as Hubble began to lobby funding entities for the means to design and build a non-earth based telescope (O’Dell 265). Unfortunately however, as is often the case with scientific visionaries, the work of actually building the space telescope was not completed until long after Olberth and many others instrumental in the formulation and development of such an idea were dead.
After years of delays, a near continual struggle for available resources and review and oversight by nearly every imaginable entity, the Hubble Space telescope was finally launched in 1990. It should be noted that regardless of the delays or the budgetary overruns and issues that have herein been discussed, the Hubble Space Telescope represented the very cutting edge of optical technology; so much so that it has continued to be relevant over 20 years after being in service. This is a seemingly impossible feat of engineering and design due to the fact that the computer revolution, the age of the internet, fiber optics, and a litany of other technology breakthroughs have occurred back on earth in the intervening years. However, Hubble was not perfect in its first iteration. Due to a miscalculation and oversight in design, the lens which was originally fitted to the telescope was found to be incorrectly ground to original specifications. As such, a very costly service mission was necessitated nearly as soon as the telescope itself had been placed into a low-earth orbit. This service mission would turn out to be the first of several which have ensured that the telescope would continue to gather a wealth of images and data that have subsequently been relayed back to earth.
Whereas many exploratory space programs have turned out not to generate the level of scientific discovery that they originally intended, this can certainly not be considered with relation to the Hubble Space Telescope program. The most important aspects of these discoveries have of course been with relation to astrophysics, star formation, and the age and rate of expansion of the universe. Whereas it had previously been conjecture and speculation to discuss the many aspects of the Big Bang Theory, the Hubble Space Telescope was finally able to offer a level of measurement and discussion into early evolution and the rate of expansion that has been experienced by the universe. Previously held knowledge had believed that the rate of expansion was actually slowing as a result of the Big Bang; however, what Hubble was able to measure was that the rate of expansion itself is actually increasing (Strom 2215). This is of importance due to the fact that it has a strong bearing as to the outlook for the future of the universe as compared to the previous view which has been expounded upon. This newer and more measurable assertion means that the universe itself is actually heading towards disintegration. By providing valuable resources by which researchers and scientists can study and seek to draw inference upon, the Hubble Space Telescope represents perhaps the single most important tool of astronomy that has been employed within the past one hundred years of time.
Although the Hubble Space Telescope is still a marvel of engineering and continues to provide quality information to astronomers and astrophysicists alike, the fact of the matter is that like any tool, the length of time that it can be employed is of course limited. As of the current time 5 expensive service missions have been performed on the Hubble Space Telescope while in low-earth orbit. As such, NASA has determined that it will not expend further money upfitting and repairing any further components upon the telescope. Instead, resources are being placed towards the replacement telescope, the James Webb Telescope; due for orbital insertion around the year 2018. As such, the Hubble Space Telescope, barring any further disruptions in its currently functional systems, is expected to continue in current operational service until somewhere around 2013-2014. Naturally, during the time that the space telescope is still in service, astronomers and researchers the world over will still be utilizing it for mapping, exploration, and discovery in the fields that have thus far been mentioned. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that the replacement for the Hubble will not be ready for at least another 5-7 years; thus leaving a large gap in which little to any fresh space telescope-based research can be conducted. Astronomers have noted that the Hubble Space Telescope itself will continue to retain its low earth orbit until somewhere between the years 2019-2032; depending on the activity of the sun during these periods (Mohamed & Reshetnikov 160)
Seeking to establish the degree to which the Hubble Space Telescope has provided a level of discovery and inference into our galaxy as well as the solar system and universe would be like trying to determine the ways in which the space shuttle has helped with space exploration and discovery. Due to the fact that the level of engineering and design that went into the Hubble Space Telescope was so far ahead of its time and necessarily expensive, the program has yielded, and continues to yield, unprecented levels of discovery well after the date in which initial estimates regarding its total serviceable life had long since been surpassed. Furthermore, seeking to envision the past few decades in which the Hubble Space Telescope had not been in operation would likely provide for a scientific community that would still be uninformed with regards to the actual rate of the universe’s expansion, the existence and importance of so-called dark matter, or the actual formation and ways in which nebulous clouds of gas in far off galaxies ultimately combine to produce star birth. All of these aspects have been witnessed and measured by the Hubble Space Telescope and have therefore provided scientists and armature astronomers alike with new levels of realization and discovery from which they can seek to build upon. Like any scientific discovery, those that have been promoted by the Hubble Space Telescope will provide the scientific basis for subsequent discoveries to be carried out. This therefore represents the true value that such a program has bequeathed to astronomy, astrophysics, and evolutionary biology.
- Mohamed, Y., and V. Reshetnikov. “Interacting Galaxies In Deep Fields Of The Hubble Space Telescope.” Astrophysics 54.2 (2011): 155-161. Academic Search Complete. Web. 10 Feb. 2013.
- O’Dell, C. “Creation Of The Hubble Space Telescope.” Experimental Astronomy 25.1-3 (2009): 261-272. Academic Search Complete. Web. 10 Feb. 2013.
- Tina Ström, et al. “Detecting Gravitationally Lensed Population III Galaxies With The Hubble Space Telescope And The James Webb Space Telescope.” Monthly Notices Of The Royal Astronomical Society 427.3 (2012): 2212-2223. Academic Search Complete. Web. 10 Feb. 2013.