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THE HUBBLE SPACE TELESCOPE “stands right up there with the Pyramids and the Great Wall of China as one of the great engineering triumphs in human history.” This assessment comes from Mike Massimino, who worked on the Hubble in space walks described in his fascinating book, Spaceman.
Mike was a Long Island kid with a dream fostered by exploits of the earliest astronauts. One picture in the book shows him in 1969, at age seven, in his homemade space suit with his Snoopy copilot. Another photo, taken in 2009, shows the same Snoopy and Mike, “but now with real adventures in space” aboard the Space Shuttle.
Mike’s way with words and his technical ken are apparent in the opening paragraph of his book’s “Seeing Beyond the Stars” chapter: “Imagine you’re standing on top of the Empire State Building in Manhattan holding a laser pointer. Now imagine I’m down in DC on top of the Washington Monument holding up a dime, and you’re able to hit that dime with your laser pointer. Now imagine that you and the Empire State Building are moving 17,500 miles per hour in one direction, and the Washington Monument and my dime are moving thousands of miles per hour away from you in a different direction, and you can still hold that spot on the dime even as we hurtle away from each other in opposite directions at incredible speeds.
“That’s what the Hubble Space Telescope does.”
A note of definition: An astronomer studies celestial objects. A cosmologist expands such observations into fundamental findings about the origin, dynamics and ultimate fate of the entire universe. Hubble was both.
In the 1920s, Hubble countered the view, then prevalent, that our Milky Way Galaxy constituted the entire universe. Later, he and others showed that the recessional velocity of other galaxies increases with their distance from Earth; this linear relationship became known as Hubble’s Law. An implication, one that Hubble found difficult to accept, is that the universe is expanding. A model of this cosmological idea supports the Big Bang Theory.
Massimino describes how astronomers had long recognized the benefits of a space-based telescope. It would be free of distortions caused by the Earth’s turbulent atmosphere. It could observe ultraviolet and infrared light, both of which get absorbed by the atmosphere. Writes Massimino, “A space-based telescope would be able to see things and learn things that no human had ever dreamed of.”
Massimino was part of two Space Shuttle flights dedicated to Hubble Servicing, Missions 3B and 4. The Hubble was the first space telescope designed with such “local” maintenance in mind. An earlier mission had corrected an error in the Hubble’s vision, in effect installing a monocle for the 7.9-ft. mirror of its main reflecting telescope.
The primary task of Mission 3B, March 2002, was to install an Advanced Camera for Surveys. It also replaced solar arrays providing 30 percent more power. Mission 4, May 2009, installed new instruments and nickel-hydrogen batteries, repaired several systems and replaced the telescope’s data-handling unit.
You may want to read more details of Massimino’s NASA adventures, especially Mission 4. There, once his work was completed, he reported a relatively leisurely view of the Earth, a “look at the most perfect, most beautiful thing in the universe.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017
After the Columbia disaster, the final mission was nearly scrapped as “too dangerous”.
Now, with the retirement of the space shuttle fleet, Hubble is on its own. We have no vehicle able to support another maintenance mission.