Shuttering Hubble

January 25, 2004

IT HAS BEEN our eye on the universe, peering farther into space than had ever been done before. A billion times more! With its cameras clicking and spectrographs turning, the Hubble Space Telescope offers stargazers and scientists a view once only imagined. And what a razzle-dazzle, nerve-firing view - the largest volcano in the solar system, a roiling storm on Saturn, black holes, dying stars, galaxies in the making. This bus-sized telescope in the sky has popularized the science of astronomy in a palpable way for those of us who can't define spectroscopy.

That's why news of Hubble's early retirement disappoints, especially at a time when its handlers at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore say it's in its prime form. NASA decided to scrap a 2006 shuttle mission to Hubble for servicing that was essential to the telescope's viability through 2010. Without the fixes, Hubble may not last past 2007.

This is not about whether Hubble has performed admirably, or its cost or its contributions to the studies of the cosmos. Hardly. Hubble got caught in the vortex of President Bush's dubious imperative to head for Mars, and the loss of the space shuttle Columbia last year. Required safety changes for shuttle flight as a result of the Columbia tragedy would be too costly to make for a single repair mission to Hubble.

But the 450 people at the Space Telescope Science Institute on the Johns Hopkins University campus aren't deterred. This gang has been hit with worse. Hubble's 1990 debut was, let's face it, less than stellar. Within two months of its launch, scientists discovered that Hubble's main mirror was radically flawed. Ridiculed as a "techno turkey" and "the blind eye in the sky," it was a world-class embarrassment for NASA. But the Hubble teams devised a way to fix the problem with a spectacular astronaut-led repair mission that gave Hubble back its 20-20 vision.

They are intent on trying to keep Hubble afloat and fit. Who knows if institute scientists can achieve that little miracle, but their commitment reflects the challenge that space provides for us.

An updated Hubble would have expanded the telescope's view of the cosmos and so, too, ours. It will be another seven years before the next big space telescope orbits the sun.

Until then, let's see what we can see. In the words of late astronomer Edwin P. Hubble, "The urge is older than history. It is not satisfied and it will not be oppressed."

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