Technology

30 Years of Science: The Hubble Space Telescope, and the Teams Behind It

17 May 2020 6:00am, by and

Sometimes it’s gratifying to turn our thoughts to space, taking pride in humanity’s everyday triumphs and the steady advances of our science. But the Hubble Space Telescope also offers an inspiring example of what we can accomplish with data — and with a strong team of collaborators.

1990 launch - STS-31 lifting off, carrying Hubble into orbit - via Wikipedia - 960px-STSAs the telescope celebrates its 30th anniversary in space this year, we are reminded that it’s a proud product of careful design, dedicated long-term support, and cross-agency collaboration. Floating just outside the earth’s atmosphere, spying on distant galaxies and our own solar system, it’s a joint project of NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Baltimore-based Space Telescope Science Institute.

After its 1990 launch on the Space Shuttle Discovery, “No one could have predicted what wonders Hubble would see in the 30 years that followed,” explains an anniversary web page. Hubble is now credited with many discoveries, according to CBS, including pinpointing the age of the universe and confirming the existence of supermassive black holes.

Most recently, Gemini Observatory in Hawaii combined three years of observations of Jupiter with carefully-coordinated images from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Juno spacecraft (orbiting Jupiter) to create the highest-resolution images ever of Jupiter’s atmosphere.

The space telescope’s longevity wasn’t accidental. “Hubble’s unique design, allowing it to be repaired and upgraded with advanced technology by astronauts, has made it one of NASA’s longest-living and most valuable observatories,” explained one NASA web page, “beaming transformational astronomical images to Earth for decades.” It’s been visited five times by Space Shuttles, bringing astronauts to repair and upgrade its equipment, with the last visit happening in 2009, CBS reported in 2013.

Servicing Mission 1 in December 1993 - via Wikipedia

“Four years after a final shuttle servicing mission, the Hubble Space Telescope is operating like a fine watch, with no major technical problems that would prevent it from continuing its trail-blazing observations…”

2020 Celebrations

Astronomy magazine points out some instruments “no longer function or must be carefully masked using software to ensure the data they take are accurate.” But when the stalwart telescope reached its 30th anniversary — still performing science, still floating above us in space — the organizations behind it, and its fans around the earth, decided to celebrate.

The telescope has received Happy Birthday wishes from a stream of earth’s celebrities. NASA even transformed one image into a “stunningly eerie musical composition,” according to the site Science Alert, in which lights in the image become musical notes. “Objects near the bottom of the image produce lower notes, while those near the top produce higher ones…” explained the video’s description, noting that most of the “specks” are actually galaxies.

“Stars and compact galaxies create short, clear tones, while sprawling spiral galaxies emit longer notes that change pitch. The higher density of galaxies near the center of the image — the heart of this galaxy cluster, known as RXC J0142.9+4438 — results in a swell of mid-range tones halfway through the video.”

To encourage the next generation of astronomers, the European Space Agency has also put out a call for Hubble-themed artwork and is even urging people to bake the telescope a birthday cake. (“We also invite you to get creative by making a unique birthday cake made from other materials, such as paper, crafts, modeling clay, or Lego blocks!”)

And the space agencies involved have created several more fun anniversary commemorations:

On the telescope’s 25th anniversary, NASA also released a special ebook collecting 25 “breathtaking and significant” images, ordered by their distance away from earth.

The space telescope also performs a kind of ritual every year on its anniversary, explains an anniversary press release. “Each year, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope dedicates a small portion of its precious observing time to taking a special anniversary image, showcasing particularly beautiful and meaningful objects.”

So what did the telescope see on its 30th anniversary? NASA touted the telescope’s “never-before-seen view of two beautiful nebulas.”

The European Space Agency also announced that it would be distributing large canvas copies of the image to 30 educational facilities across Europe, with more in America, “for display in public settings on the anniversary date.” Because the pandemic has “impacted the feasibility” of public unveiling ceremonies, they’ve instead moved instead to a series of events “throughout 2020 that are a general celebration of the Hubble Space Telescope’s splendid 30 years.”

The People Behind the Project

Hubble Control Center at Goddard Space Flight Center, 1999 - via HubbleSite dot org and Wikipedia

There are also dozens of videos in a special collection about the telescope — and NASA makes a point of emphasizing the people behind the project. “On the Hubble team are people who come from small towns and big cities, people who worked in the military and in factories, people who knew what they wanted and people who slowly discovered their calling…”

A project doesn’t continue for 30 years without some good people behind it. “From the astronauts who fix Hubble to the developers who work on its software, from the scientists who study the data to the people who spread the word about its discoveries, the telescope is supported by people who traveled unique paths to join the Hubble adventure.”

And one page celebrates Nancy Grace Roman, the research astronomer who became NASA’s first Chief of Astronomy. It tells the story of her years of service, remembering Roman as “instrumental in taking the Hubble Space Telescope from an idea to reality and establishing NASA’s program of space-based astronomical observatories.” More than 31 years before the Hubble telescope launched, Roman was already proposing “a telescope on an artificial earth satellite” back in 1959, and she continued arguing for the scientific merits of a telescope above the earth’s atmosphere until the idea became a reality.

She’s now known as “The Mother of Hubble.”

Just six months after NASA was established in 1958, Roman joined the organization. “My salary at the university was so low, that civil service did not recognize it as a professional experience,” she remembered in the 2018 video. But looking back, she says “I was accepted very readily as a scientist in my job. The men were very cooperative, and I felt that the men treated me as one of the team without a problem.” Although she adds that she’d still like to see a higher percentage of women at senior levels today, and for women working as astronomers, “Salaries are still not equal.”

Nancy_Grace_Roman_with_Women_of_Hubble_(42081749402) - Beverly Serrano, Morgan Van Arsdall, Nancy Grace Roman, Olivia Lupie, Padi Boyd, and Erin Kisliuk

While the science continued, high in the sky, “It’s hard to decide how history will view my accomplishments,” Grace told her interviewer.

As humanity continues its march forward into the future, building on the contributions who came before, “People generally aren’t terribly interested in what gets thing started,” she said.

“And so I’m not sure they’re going to have much of an idea of my role.”

Nancy Grace Roman in the 1970s


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