Capturing the Final Frontier

If you aren’t bewitched, baffled, boondoggled, and bedazzled (okay, maybe not that last one) by outer space, then you haven’t been paying attention.

Here’s the story. Of a scope named Hubble.

(Stick with me. This gets fantastic.)

In 1923, a German physicist named Hermann Oberth speculated that it would be possible to send a telescope out into Earth’s orbit. More than two decades later, the American physicist Lyman Spitzer wrote a paper pushing for such an instrument. And nearly twenty years after that, Spitzer was put in charge of developing a plan for this space telescope.

After squabbling with astronomers for years, our Congress finally authorized $38 million for the project, and European scientists threw in more money, in exchange for at least 15% viewing time on the telescope. (That “at least 15%” sounds so adorably eager to me.)

The Hubble Telescope (named after Edwin Hubble, a brilliant early-20th-century scientist who profoundly changed our understanding of the universe when he discovered that it is actually expanding) was built during the 1980’s. And in 1990, the shuttle Discovery carried the by-now-$2.5 billion Hubble into orbit.

The Hubble Telescope was positioned nearly 350 miles above earth – “above” being a relative term in space, of course, where there is no up or down, and where the very passage of time turns simple physics on its head.

We’ve all seen the amazing photos that the Hubble has taken, like this one of gas pillars in the Eagle Nebula:

Or this one, an ultra-deep view of the universe (by the way, those aren’t planets or stars you’re looking at – those are entire galaxies):

Here’s how outrageous and complex some of Hubble’s pictures are: if you go to the official website, and try to look at “high-resolution” photos of these galaxies, the powers-that-be dramatically warn you that trying to view the photos in their highest resolution can crash your computer.

In case you’re wondering – no, what you’re seeing are not, strictly speaking, the actual colors that Hubble captures. Since Hubble only records light, the images it produces consist of varying shades of black and white. Personnel at NASA add color to the photos, based on a variety of reasons; mostly to enhance detail, to highlight features, and to visualize the way things might look if we could see them with the naked eye.

The Hubble Telescope has captured the most amazing images in the history of the world.


We ain’t seen nothing yet.

Because in 2014 things in the cosmos are gonna get a whole lot freakier. If all goes according to plan, that’s when the new James Webb Telescope will be positioned in space – (are you sitting down?) nearly a million miles from earth.

I’m sorry, I don’t believe I heard myself correctly.

Yes, that’s right. This man-made telescope will orbit the sun, same as we do – but 930,000 miles from Planet Earth. That’s almost 4 times farther than the distance between Earth and the moon.

When I told my husband about this, last night, he looked at me calmly and said, “Bulls***.” And then we had a good laugh, because NASA could position this thing a mere thousand miles away and tell us it was a million miles, and how would we know differently? It’s all so unbelievable.

Unlike the Hubble, the Webb will use infrared, which will eliminate most of the gas and dust of space that currently obscure our views. To illustrate the difference, here are two pictures of the exact same view of the Carina Nebula: the top photo was taken using the Hubble’s usual technology; the bottom photo was taken using infrared. Far more stars are visible in every area of the infrared picture.

The Webb has a mirrored surface that is almost six times larger than Hubble’s. We can’t get something that big into space, so the Webb is designed to fold up during its launch, then re-open once it reaches space.

At such a distance from Earth, of course, the Webb Telescope, unlike the Hubble, will be unserviceable. Once it launches, it’s on its own.

This whole thing makes me positively giddy. Look, a thousand things could go wrong. We could send this several-billion dollar project into space, and it could disintegrate halfway through its journey. Or it could reach its destination and prove to have a fatal flaw that renders it unusable, leaving us with a very expensive piece of space candy that we can’t even get a good look at through the Hubble (since that soon-to-be-antiquated wreck will reenter Earth’s atmosphere sometime in the next twenty years, due to orbital decay.)

But the fact that we can even theoretically do this, that there are people smart enough and driven enough to try – the fact that humans have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and some of them have enough guts to risk everything in the quest; well, as someone who is obsessed with learning, all of this simply thrills me.

A million miles from Earth.

I swear, you can’t make this stuff up.


You can read the complete story of the Hubble, and all its glorious technical details, on its Wiki page. And here is the official Hubble website, where you can scroll through unbelievable photos to your heart’s content.

How about you? Does the Final Frontier enchant you, too?


13 thoughts on “Capturing the Final Frontier

  1. Good post, Kathy. If everything works right, I’m sure the pics from the new telescope will be amazing.

    I’ve got to tell you though…. I’m a little bummed for a reason you might not expect. You pointed out something in the article that I had never heard or seen mentioned with all the previous Hubble pics I’d seen:
    “Since Hubble only records light, the images it produces consist of varying shades of black and white. Personnel at NASA add color to the photos….”

    What? With all the beautiful pictures you see online and in books, I’ve never caught wind of that before. (Didn’t realize I needed to look for the “fine print”.) I may be on the gullible side (ie,I didn’t question the colors in pics, took them at face value), but when you see all sorts of pictures taken by a billion dollar telescope, you kind of expect the pictures to be… well… pictures! Not paint by number renditions of pictures that were filled in by NASA technicians! I would much rather see a real picture that was taken by the billion dollar telescope than an artist’s rendition.

    Other than that, it is cool that they are putting another telescope out there that will have so much greater definition and clarity…. I just hope they let us see the actual pictures!

    • Yeah, I’m kinda torn. On one hand, I generally want the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but. On the other hand, the colorized pictures are so beautiful…I’m afraid I wouldn’t be as bowled over if the contrasts weren’t as clear, you know?

      I don’t think the wiki page told me about that…but Hubble’s official site was pretty up-front about it.

  2. Absolutely fascinating! Louie Giglio from the Passion movement has some amazing teachings on the Hubble! My brain is awake now!

  3. Wow, how fun to find out about this geeky passion of yours. This was really interesting. I’ll have to come to you for my space updates!

    Seriously though, those pictures are unbelievable. I know the infrared captures more but the gases and dust makes the pictures so much cooler.

  4. Yeah, I agree the gasses and dust add to the beauty of the pictures. I love reading your posts on all things considered ‘geeky’. You’re my expert in ‘geek’. (Actually, I thought I was pretty much a geek until I read your blog. You out-geek me by a mile.) I do love your enthusiasm. These days when I spend a lot of my time being tired, I enjoy jumping up and down with you metaphorically. 🙂

    • I am a hopeless geek…doesn’t surprise me that you are, too.

      And listen, I am tired all the time! I have to get excited about stuff I read about, because I don’t have enough energy to actually go do anything. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s