Astronomers declared NASA's newly rejuvenated Hubble Space Telescope observatory a whopping success last week. And the good news was the crowning technical achievement of the year 2009, the International Year of Astronomy.
America's space telescope was recently outfitted with new cameras and other instruments by U.S. space shuttle astronauts. Spectacular images released just last week-from several of the giant orbiting telescope's operating science instruments-reveal jawdropping views of our immense universe.
NASA's high-resolution color images were worth the wait. They include multi-wavelength snaps of galaxies, a star crowded stellar cluster, and a stunning butterfly like nebula cloud (see images on page 1), to name a few.
"Hubble's suite of new instruments allows it to study the universe across a wide swath of the light spectrum, from ultraviolet all the way to near-infrared," according to NASA.
The scope's spectroscopic instruments have pierced billions of years to reveal portions of the spider web-like structure of the universe as well as the distribution of chemical elements that go into the production of stars and life.
"This marks a new beginning for Hubble," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "The telescope was given an extreme makeover and now is significantly more powerful than ever, well-equipped to last into the next decade."
So what makes all the news about Hubble worth celebrating? Well, let's look at all the instrument upgrades-
Several onboard instruments were made more sensitive to light gathering thus improving Hubble's efficiency by a very large factor. Also, other electronic improvements have transformed Hubble into a supercharged version of the 1990s-era space telescope. This 21st-century spacecraft upgrade can now complete deep-sky observations in a fraction of the time of the old 20th-century version.
According to the NASA officials beaming at last week's news conference, scientists have been "focusing, testing, and calibrating" the new instruments since June and the results are beyond their wildest dreams.
Hubble is among the most complex spacecraft ever built in history. Astronauts performed the hardware upgrades on the 19-year-old observatory's systems at great risk. But sometimes risk is worth price. Case in point: The telescope was quickly called into service in July to observe Jupiter after a collision with a suspected comet. Hubble's images revealed a massive disturbance in Jupiter's upper atmosphere at the point of impact.
Hubble's observation schedule for 2009 and 2010 will be robust; it will include observing mysterious, ultra-cold Kuiper Belt objects at the far edge of our solar system. And the spacecraft will start a systematic search for new planets orbiting around distant stars. This work will include probing extrasolar planet atmospheres-water and oxygen may be found on some Earthlike worlds. Could there be life below those distant clouds?
Hubble has played its starring role of optical time machine to the hilt. By looking across millions of light years in distance, this spacecraft is gazing back, back into the remote past.
With that said, next year, Hubble will start observing baby galaxies that are less than 500 million years old. These young and growing galaxies were existing in the early days of the universe, so what may be revealed will be a prime example of Hubble as a kind of Sherman and Peabody "Wayback Machine".
Dark matter will be another observing target for Hubble. There's much we don't know about where dark matter is hiding in the universe. This mystery matter acts as a repulsive force; it also seems to be splitting the universe apart. So, whatever Hubble reveals on this and other distant fronts, will open new vistas to better understanding the nature of time and space.
As taxpayers, we all own a piece of Hubble, one of our nation's greatest scientific resources. Many Hubble space images are free and can be used for personal, non-commercial applications; they are downloadable and make eyecatching wall hangings or objects of study. You can download them to your flash drive, then take your flash drive to a local camera shop; there you can print out stunning, large-format prints and posters for home.
To examine the Hubble Space Telescope's new photos for yourself, go online to: www.nasa.gov/hubble, hubblesite.org, or www.spacetelescope.org/.
Lou Varricchio, M.Sc., is a former NASA science writer. He is currently involved in NASA's JPL Solar System Ambassador Program which provides space-science and space-exploration educational tools to Vermonters.