Hopkins physicist has high hopes Hubble will aid quest for planets

Q&A

December 14, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Staff Writer

William G. Fastie, a physicist at the Johns Hopkins University, was one of 10 scientists selected by competition in 1977 to serve in a group that advised the National Aeronautics and Space Administration up to and after the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope in the spring of 1990.

He was one of two telescope scientists in the Science Working Group. He was the one given the responsibility to ensure that the company contracted to make the telescope's mirrors, Perkin-Elmer, did it right.

It didn't. The primary mirror, it was learned after the launch, proved to be the telescope's main flaw.

During the more than three years of the telescope's malfunction, the Baltimore-born Mr. Fastie officially retired from Hopkins but continued with his responsibilities in connection with the space telescope and with his other scientific work. With the NASA repair mission widely thought a success so far, he is eager to turn his hand to his own project on the Hubble.

QUESTION: How long have you been involved with the idea of a space telescope?

ANSWER: Since 1969 when I gave a paper on how such a telescope could be calibrated in space at Marshall Space Flight Center. I had been designing space experiments that used small telescopes for work in rockets and planetary fly-bys since 1958 when Sputnik came over, and which really got me involved in space research.

It came right dead over Baltimore one night, and I saw it and said to myself, 'I've got just the instrument' that was applicable to that kind of space research. It was an ultraviolet spectrometer [a device for measuring and analyzing light].

Q: Was your long-standing interest mainly to see the space telescope itself become a reality, or was there a purpose beyond this, some research you couldn't do without a space telescope?

A: Both. I was interested in a search for extra-solar planets -- that is, planets in orbit about nearby stars. Stars that are farther away than 15 light years or so are too far away for the space telescope to discover planets around. So they have to be nearby stars. There aren't very many of these. The observer list on our program has only seven stars which the space telescope could possibly detect.

Q: Assuming everything that was wrong with Hubble has been righted, will the delay have impaired your ability to see that research through? Or has it simply set back your timetable?

A: No. There have been three delays in the deployment of the Hubble for a total of 10 years. The first was a three-year delay in building the thing. Then there was a four- year delay because of the Challenger disaster. Then a three-year delay getting the repair mission together. I am too old to do research [77], but I have a strong, young research team. We have a hundred hours of observing time on the space telescope assigned to us. That is sufficient. If we have any hint of a planet discovery, the discovery of a planet around another star, we can get scads of time, even though I don't have that much time myself.

We have never seen a planet in another solar system, but the assumption is they are there. With all those planets and all those stars there must be another Earth, another Jupiter. It is beyond our optical capability to see them. They are so faint and so close to what have to be very bright stars.

Q: You have no academic degree of any kind, yet you have done high-level science at Hopkins for over half a century. Isn't that a bit unusual?

A: It is unusual, but they were unusual times. There was the Depression, the war. It was something that just happened. Without an undergraduate degree I went to graduate school, and everything was over my head. What I did was study the stuff I understood and ignore the rest. Which is why I didn't get a Ph.D. What I had was a rather extraordinary ability to put my mind and my hands together and make something. That is what an experimental physicist is, someone who can make something nobody else can, or has, made before.

Q: What do you make?

A: Ultraviolet spectrometers.

Q: One report on the capability of the Hubble telescope said it would enable scientists to see to the edge of the universe. How could such a thing be possible? How could the universe have an edge without there being something beyond the edge?

A: Because if our universe is 15 billion years old, an average estimate, no part of it can be more than 15 billion [light] years from us. If we can see beyond our universe, can we discover another universe? And the answer to that question is, 'I don't know. I'm not an Einstein.'

Q: Do you think this instrument -- the Hubble Space Telescope -- will move astronomy up among the major fields of scientific activity, as physics has been through much of this century, or as biology has become?

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