Last week's successful launch of NASA's Space Shuttle Atlantis STS-125 mission will hopefully extend the life of the famous Hubble Space Telescope, now in its nineteenth year of operation.
In the coming days, astronauts will install the new Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) and Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS), among making other improvements. While it may sound like space agency hype, both the WFC3 and COS instruments will truly lead the way to more exciting scientific discoveries in deep space.
First, let's look at NASA's WFC3 instrument-
This high-tech camera for Hubble will be used to observe young and extremely distant galaxies as well as nearby star systems; in fact, this new camera will also be used to look at objects within our own solar system such as asteroids and the planets. WFC3 is like a super eye that can see in multi electromagnetic (EM) dimensions-its sees ultraviolet light, visible or so-called optical light (our eyes can detect this kind of light), and the near-infrared (on Earth, the military uses this kind of light in night-vision goggles to see in the dark). It's WFC3's "panchromatic" coverage that makes it unique. WFC3 will "see" hot stars in UV and old, cool stars in the red and near-infrared.
The next big upgrade is Hubble's ACS device-
Astronauts will also attempt to repair the Hubble's aging Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS). ACS can detect UV light, too, but the field of view is narrow. And while ACS was not designed to do much in the way of near-infrared observing, WFC3 will make an ideal partner.
According to NASA's Susan Hendrix, after Hubble's delicate upgrades, the following jobs will likely get some headlines in the next few years:
•Galactic Evolution: "Galaxies with new star formation emit most of their light at ultra-violet and visible wavelengths. Looking farther out across the universe and back in time, however, that light shifts toward red and near-infrared wavelengths," Hendrix said. "With the WFC3's panchromatic imaging, astronomers will be able to follow galaxy evolution backward in time from our nearest neighboring galaxies to the earliest times when galaxies had just begun to form."
•Dark Matter and Energy: "Two mysteries, two approaches," Hendrix said. "WFC3's mapping of gravitational lenses can help determine the character and distribution of dark matter in galaxy clusters. WFC3 plus ACS could conduct systematic searches for Type Ia supernovae to measure the expansion history of the universe and get a handle on dark energy."
American astronauts will face considerable risk during their high-wire Hubble repair mission at 559 kilometers (347 miles) above the Earth. Multiple EVAs will last several hours and will expose spacewalkers to sharp components that can deeply slice through spacesuit fabric in seconds. The brave crew members of Atlantis have practiced for this mission for several years; so with planning, skill, and luck (plus a few sincere prayers for good measure), the astronauts will succeed and the Hubble Space Telescope will emerge better than ever. Hubble should remain a valuable, national scientific asset until 2014.
According to NASA's Hendrix, Hubble's 2014 successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, will only observe space in the infrared spectrum, so it's not really a replacement.
When Hubble is ultimately retired, taxpayers won't get the benefit of seeing new, high-definition Internet space images in the visible part of the EM spectrum. No matter, what will remain of Hubble will be its vast storehouse of untapped data that new researchers can examine. This writer bets that Hubble's rich "data mine" will give up many new, priceless gemstones for decades to come.
Lou Varricchio, M.Sc., is a former NASA science writer. He is involved with the NASA-JPL Solar System Ambassador program and is a second lieutenant with the Civil Air Patrol's Rutland Composite Squadron, an auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force.