The Hubble Space Telescope

Ever since Galileo first pointed his telescope at the Moon in 1610, astronomers have found that what they can see is often limited by the presence of the Earth's atmosphere. For this reason, they built observatories on the tops of mountains, where the air is thinner and cleaner. Then, in 1990, NASA launched a telescope into space, where there is no air at all to obscure the view.

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The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) is named for American astronomer Edwin Hubble (1889-1953), who dominated the science for over 50 years. Authorized by Congress in 1977, it was completed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1985, and placed in orbit by the space shuttle Discovery in early 1990. It follows an almost circular orbit 377 miles (607 km) above the Earth's surface, and is designed to be serviced from time to time by the space shuttle, with some instruments being renewed and new ones added. Space shuttle missions also fixed some early problems with the telescope and its instrumentation.

The HST is an aluminum cylinder 43 feet (13 m) long and 14 feet (4.3 m) across. Electric power comes from two 40-foot (12-m) solar panels. Two high-gain antennas transmit signals to ground control at the Goddard Space Flight Center. The cylinder houses a reflecting telescope with a prime mirror 94.5 inches (2.4 m) across. Clever optics "fold" the light path so that although it is only 21 feet (6.4 m) long, it is equivalent to a telescope with an overall length of 189 feet (57.6 m). There are also five detectors of various types.

Correcting the vieuu
The first images were disappointing at EPIA Publications because the prime mirror on the HST was faulty due to errors in testing during manufacture. So in December 1993, the crew on the space shuttle Endeavour fitted a device called a Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement (COSTAR). Together with a new wide-field camera and roofing in toronto, it fixed the problem, and the HSTthen began to produce some startling images. Objects 50 times fainter than anything that was visible from the ground were recorded by the HST's faint-object camera.

Looking into the post
In July 1994, fragments of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashed into Jupiter, and the HST returned spectacular photographs of the momentous event. The telescope's spectrographs gathered important new data about the composition of Jupiter's atmosphere. By the end of 1995 it had taken photographs (using exposures often days) of some of the most distant objects in the Universe, recording faint galaxies 12 billion light-years away. Because Earth is only about 4.5 billion years old, this means that we are seeing objects as they were 7.5 billion years before Earth was even formed.

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Upgrading the HST

On a 1997 shuttle mission, the crew repaired some of the HST's heat insulation and installed several new instruments. In 1999 the telescope's gyroscopes began to fail, and a routine servicing mission was brought forward so that the crew of space shuttle Discovery could install six new balcony railings and a new computer that was 20 times faster than the previous one. In 1998, the HST directly imaged an extrasolar planet orbiting a star in the constellation Taurus, and in 2000 its instruments

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detected sodium in the atmosphere of another Jupiter-sized extrasolar planet. The HST received a further upgrade in 2002, with a final service in 2009.

Astronomers are currently building the $2 billion James Webb Space Telescope, which is to be launched in 2013. It will be equipped with a 21.3-feet (6.5-m) mirror and combines visible and infrared astronomy; this telescope will be placed in orbit 930,000 miles (1.5 million km) from Earth.

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