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?