27 years ago, in April 1990 the Space Shuttle Discovery blasted off carrying what was to become one of the most successful scientific missions of all time, The Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble and the images it produces, have more than any other mission since the heady days of the Apollo space programme, brought the magic of space to the public. Hubble has probed the depths of space and brought it’s wonders to our magazines, televisions and computer screens where humanity has looked on in awe.
However it wasn’t always plain sailing for Hubble. Shortly after Hubble’s launch, astronomers and scientists eagerly waited for the first images to be sent back. When the images finally arrived, they were out of focus, soft and blurry, not greatly, but enough to leave all concerned quite upset, to say the least. The telescope was launched at a cost of 1.5 billion dollars and it really didn’t perform as well as it should. It turned out that the large 2.4 m diameter mirror used to collect the light had a slight flaw. A trip to the opticians was in order, but since the telescope orbits at a distance of over 500 miles from the Earth, a Space Shuttle mission with corrective optics or “glasses” and a crew of astronauts to fit them was in order.
Three years after the telescope was launched, seven astronauts fitted the new optics system and a bunch of cameras and other instruments. Finally Hubble could perform as it was designed to, and the images it sent back were breathtaking. Images showing stars being born, solar systems forming around distant suns. The planets in mesmerising detail. High resolution vistas of distant galaxies and the Hubble Deep Field and Ultra Deep Field Views. 10,000 galaxies packed into an area of the sky 25 times smaller than the full moon.
Each galaxy packed with hundreds of billions of suns. That’s a pretty impressive picture!
Since that first servicing mission, Hubble has received four more and will hopefully continue bringing us spectacular images for a few more years yet. However, Hubble doesn’t just provide pretty pictures, it is primarily an instrument of science and has helped shape our understanding of the universe in so many ways and will continue to do so for many years to come.