One of the most important telescopes in the history of astronomy, the Hubble telescope has allowed observers to peer farther into space than any previous telescope. By moving outside and above the atmosphere of the earth, the Hubble telescope has been able to observe visual data much more clearly than a terrestrial telescope, and it has been able to see much farther into the ultraviolet and infrared spectrums as well, since these spectra are largely absorbed by the earth’s atmosphere. Thus, by moving the observing platform into open space, the Hubble telescope has given a much clearer view of the universe, allowing scientists to peer even deeper into space.
The Hubble telescope is named for Edwin Hubble, the astronomer who originally determined that the universe is expanding. This discovery, one of the foundations of modern astronomy and cosmology, made Hubble an excellent choice for the honor of having this telescope named for him.
The concept for the Hubble telescope was originally the idea of Lyman Spitzer back in 1946. He clearly saw that earth-based telescopes were inherently limited in their ability to see into the heavens, since dust, clouds, and even turbulence in the atmosphere interfered with telescopes’ clarity. Which meant that the best way to get a clear image from a telescope was with a telescope that was in orbit around the earth.
After some success with the smaller Orbiting Astronomical Observatory, the plan for a large scale telescope was born. There were some fits and starts however, mostly due to budget constraints, and the project did not really take off until the 1970’s and funding was not approved until 1978. Then, with funding in place, plans were made to launch the Hubble telescope in 1983. However, due to various delays, it was not actually launched until 1990.
After a few early problems, the Hubble telescope finally started sending back clear images. And those images were well worth the effort. The Hubble telescope was able to achieve a sharpness and resolution that was unimaginable with a standard, earth-bound telescope; crisp images that not only showed new detail in known areas of space, but also peered deeper into space than ever before. And with these new images, astronomers have been able to discover new and exciting information about our universe.
However, it is not only astronomers who have been amazed at the images that the Hubble telescope has produced. In fact, the images from Hubble are delights to view all on their own. From the clearly defined galaxies, to pictures of nebulae, to the Apollo 15 landing site, Hubble has been as exciting for the public as it has been for scientists.
As the Hubble telescope ages, its future is uncertain. Corrective software has allowed earth-based telescopes to pick up much of the information previously possible only with a space-based telescope. And as NASA retools itself to follow its mandate to take a man to Mars, money that would be spent on maintenance of the Hubble is being spent elsewhere. However, before the Hubble telescope enters the atmosphere sometime in 2010, it will provide a remarkable window into the universe and all that is in it.