Scientists 'ecstatic' over Hubble

January 13, 1994|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

An article in yesterday's Sun and some editions of The Evening Sun stated incorrectly that the Hubble Space Telescope's wide-field camera is part of the package of corrective mirrors, called COSTAR, installed last month. The wide field camera is a separate instrument.

The Sun regrets the error.

Last month's repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope have paid off handsomely for scientists, and the views of stars and galaxies captured in its first pictures -- to be released today by NASA -- have left astronomers "ecstatic."

"If you come to the [Space Telescope Science] Institute [in Baltimore] you don't see any long faces," said Holland C. Ford, a Johns Hopkins University astronomer.


NASA officials were holding their tongues, awaiting the release of Hubble's first post-repair pictures today at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

Hubble's "first light" pictures -- the name given to an observatory's initial photos -- are being made public about two weeks ahead of schedule.

Both NASA administrator Daniel Goldin and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md. -- a space enthusiast who chairs a Senate subcommittee crucial to NASA's budget -- are on the list of VIPs who are to attend.

Yesterday, astronomers attached to the Hubble program were under strict orders to keep quiet and let details of the first pictures be released at Goddard. But their mood was clear.

"We're just ecstatic . . . I think the astronomers are just as happy as can be," said Dr. Ford.

Dr. Jim Crocker, COSTAR project manager at the space telescope institute, was just as happy.

"Holland and I are not going to have to herd sheep in Australia," he said "I think we're probably going to be pretty busy boys for the foreseeable future."

And at the American Astronomical Society conference in Crystal City, Va., yesterday, a Hubble update for the 1,800 astronomers attending from around the world was postponed until after today's news conference at Goddard. Expectations about the photos were so high that reporters covering the conference were offered bus rides to Goddard.

One Hubble astronomer at the AAS conference, Dr. Gary A. Bower, predicted that the repaired Hubble will be able to confirm evidence of black holes at the center of galaxies. "Everything's encouraging," he said. "Everybody's happy."

Officials at NASA headquarters were playing it safe yesterday, mindful of the public's disappointment when they released Hubble's very first fuzzy pictures in 1990.

"It's really up to the scientists themselves . . . to show what they've got and what they think. They know best," said Dr. Edward J. Weiler, space telescope program scientist at NASA headquarters.

After Hubble was launched in 1990, NASA released the telescope's first blurry pictures only to discover that the telescope's 94-inch primary mirror had been ground to the wrong shape and could not be focused sharply.

The stars in the photos looked better than comparable images made by ground-based telescopes. But they still looked like puzzling fuzz balls -- not the dramatically sharper celestial beauties everyone was anticipating.

Scientists eventually learned how to use computer techniques to sharpen the images, yielding results better than anything a ground-based telescope could produce. But the adjustments greatly reduced the sensitivity to very faint light that astronomers had expected from Hubble and could not separate the light of faint objects from the glare of brighter objects nearby.

Last month's repair work was intended to restore that lost sensitivity and give astronomers a view of such phenomena as planets circling distant stars and the inner cores of galaxies where black holes are thought to lurk.

The pictures are expected to include color and black-and-white photographs of familiar galaxies, nebulae and star clusters -- each with "before" pictures taken by Hubble before last month's repairs.

The new pictures were taken with the observatory's new Wide Field/Planetary Camera -- installed last month by the Endeavour astronauts -- and the Faint Object Camera, which is now receiving starlight through corrective mirrors provided by the COSTAR device installed last month.

COSTAR is an acronym for Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement. It is a package that included the wide field camera and corrective optical mirrors.

"Things are going well," said Dr. Weiler.

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