Hubble scientists elated by picture-perfect photos

January 14, 1994|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

GREENBELT -- Astronomers and NASA administrators were all smiles yesterday as they declared the Hubble Space Telescope "fixed," released its first pictures and promised years of dramatic discoveries that will "push back the frontiers of ignorance."

Astronomer James H. Crocker of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore called the repaired observatory "as perfect as engineering can achieve, and the laws of physics will allow."

Scientists told a standing-room-only crowd at the Goddard Space Flight Center that the repairs had exceeded expectations, extending astronomers' view across the universe by 10 times, and enlarging the visible volume of space by 1,000 times.

"All I can say is, 'Wow!' " said Duccio Macchetto, principal investigator for the Hubble's Faint Object Camera.

NASA officials declares their agency vindicated and reborn in the PTC glow of Hubble's successful repairs last month by astronauts aboard the Shuttle Endeavour.

"This . . . solidifies that we are a can-do agency," said Daniel S. Goldin, the administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The repairs "took the brilliance and courage of people who weren't afraid to take the risk. They weren't afraid of failure."

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., who chairs a Senate subcommittee crucial to NASA's budget, said she hoped the Clinton administration's budget writers "can see through their green eyeshades now as clearly as we can now see with Hubble."

The Endeavour astronauts' success is also a green light for the planned space station, she said.

Color images released yesterday showed a dramatic improvement in pictures of the core of a spiral galaxy called M100, about 50 million light years from Earth.

The photograph taken before the repairs shows the galaxy's bright center surrounded by a handful of bright stars and a thick blue fog of blurred starlight.

In the "after" photo, snapped by the new, improved Wide Field/Planetary Camera installed by the Endeavour astronauts, the fog has lifted.

Thousands of individual faint stars have popped into view, and the swirling structure of the galaxy's core is visible in crisp detail.

With so many more stars now visible in M100, scientists will search it and more distant galaxies like it for variable stars called cepheids.

These are the mileposts astronomers use to measure distances across the nearby universe, and the keys to calculating the still-uncertain "Hubble constant" by which the true size and age of the entire universe may soon be measured.

Before-and-after pictures from Hubble's Faint Object Camera -- its view sharpened by the COSTAR mirrors installed last month -- showed a cluster of hot young stars where observers thought they saw a single huge star in the 30 Doradus nebula.

The best prerepair Hubble photo revealed only a few dim stars swamped by starlight deflected by the flawed mirror.

Hubble's improved acuity will enable astronomers to search for planets circling distant stars and to clock the speed of stars circling near the cores of galaxies -- the key to proving the existence of black holes.

"It's clear we're going to be able to do a lot more science with this kind of imaging," said Dr. John Trauger, principal investigator on the new Wide Field/Planetary Camera.

Scientists are still focusing and aligning mirrors serving Hubble's Faint Object Spectrograph, and will start within two weeks to calibrate the Goddard High Resolution Spectrograph. Their work is about two weeks ahead of schedule, largely because the new instruments arrived on orbit so nearly perfect.

In a videotape played yesterday, scientists at Goddard erupted into cheers and shouts of astonishment when the first test image from the Wide Field/Planetary Camera was beamed to Earth at 1:30 a.m. Dec. 18. The telescope's focus on the star was already nearly perfect.

When the first Faint Object Camera picture came in, it, too, was nearly perfect. Of 2,000 possible positions for the COSTAR mirror serving the camera, engineers needed to adjust it by 11.

"I don't think in my wildest prayers and dreams that I thought we'd come out that close," said Dr. Crocker, who led the COSTAR design team.

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