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Science, Maths & Technology

Space telescopes galore

Updated Friday, 15th May 2009

As the Hubble Space Telescope undergoes a service, Andrew Morris marvels at the technology behind taking photographs in space

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As I write this there are astronauts orbiting the Earth on a mission to re-service the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). A while ago I was very worried Hubble would not get this stay of execution as its systems would slowly degrade and die over time. I feared the Columbia tragedy and International Space Station had removed all available funds from NASA’s bank account never to be made available to anything else. But those fears are gone and I’m now looking forward to a Hubble that will be back and better than ever.

You can watch the ongoing refit through links on the NASA website.

Hubble Space Telescope [photo NASA images] Creative commons image Icon photograph © copyright NASA Images under Creative-Commons license
Hubble Space Telescope.

The very bright people at NASA basically not only made an amazing space telescope but also had the foresight to put it in an orbit around the Earth which the Space Shuttle could reach. This means as the march of technology progresses, each Hubble refit makes the overall package worth all the trouble in the first place. Reading through the shiny bits of kit intended for the HST it’s hard not to get excited what the new Wide Field Camera (WFC) and Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) won’t be able to shed extra light on after you consider what the older gear has already given us.

In the end the refurbished telescope will be significantly better than previously. New instruments, upgraded instruments, fixing instruments, better steering and more power are all on the cards. It’s surprising to hear that the Astronauts are not planning on also adding a spoiler and a fetching ‘go faster’ stripe along the side.

It’s very exciting to think of all the new science that will be investigated with the upgraded system but I am mostly looking forward to the new pictures that it will provide. After all is said and done it’s the pictures for the public that give the best reason for the servicing mission. It is rare that an instrument gives us all such a vivid appreciation of the complex and elegant Universe we all inhabit. There are so many examples that deserve highlighting but Hubble’s Deep Field Image, I believe, is the finest since it is the best explanation of why I am so fascinated with the natural world. I encourage everyone who hasn’t seen it to look it up, and everyone who has to do so again.

Each speck on the image, each pixel of colour belongs to a galaxy which contains millions of stars

For those of you who have no understanding of what I’m going on about it’s an Image taken by the HST of a dark and small bit of sky which reveals a mosaic of far and ancient galaxies. This picture isn’t an artist’s impression; this is what we would see if we had good enough eyes. Each speck on the image, each pixel of colour belongs to a galaxy which contains millions of stars, most of which are not too dissimilar from our own Sun. It is a favourite of mine. It gives me some appreciation of what could be out there and it compels me to take the steps to find out. As I sit here tapping away in what may be a non coherent way all I can think of is how glad I am that the Hubble Space Telescope is getting that refit.

Also, the European Space Agency (ESA) is not to be outdone. It has recently launched two space telescopes named Herschel and Planck. Both of these telescopes give us extra information beyond what Hubble can do alone and Planck in particular is looking for the left over remnants of the big bang. I think the ESA director general, Jean-Jacques Dordain, describes the reason for the telescopes quite nicely so I’ll end this blog with a quote from him.

“Herschel and Planck will enable us to go very far back in time, to the origins of our Universe and it is only by better understanding our Universe’s overall past that we can help to better define the future of our planet, the Earth, not as a self-standing celestial body but as an integral part of the whole system,”





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