THE HUBBLE SPACE TELESCOPE

Given that there are roughly ten tons of turbulent murky atmosphere above every square metre of the Earth’s surface it is a wonder that we can see the Cosmos at all. Thus the urge to orbit a big telescope above that atmosphere was irresistible. So in 1976 NASA and ESA put together a joint mission , which was eventually to be christened ‘The Hubble Space Telescope’ (HST) after Edwin Hubble. If, and it was a very big if at the time, all went according to plan, the prospects were breathtaking. The machine would image the Cosmos in a thousand times more detail, and across an eight times greater colour range than its ground based counterparts. Because of its accuity it would begin to see the Universe actually moving for the first time. Furthermore it ought to detect objects a hundred times fainter and thus ten times further away, and because light has a finite speed that meant it would be a Time Machine able to observe the Universe as it was long before the Earth and Sun were born. No wonder some suggested it would become “the most exciting project ever undertaken by mankind”.

This illustration shows the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope in its high orbit 600 kilometres above Earth. It’s about the size of a bus while the ‘wings’ are solar panels

But if it was to succeed there were huge challenges to overcome. How was a mirror of the required precision ever to be made? How could the telescope take pictures up there and then return them to Earth? Given that there would be no crew (too clumsy), how was it first to find its targets and then hold steady on them with unheard of precision? How could it be serviced, or repaired if things went wrong, as they were bound to do on on a spacecraft far more complex than any nuclear-powered aircraft carrier?

Nobody knew the answers. But that was half the point. Like JFK challenging the Apollo Mission to get to the Moon in the 1960s “……not because it is easy, but because it is hard” so NASA and ESA were throwing down the gauntlet to their successors. “Here” they said to their selected teams “Here’s a problem we can’t solve. You go crack it. But you’ve only got so long!” And that of course was the very kind of challenge which inspires scieneers.

Astronauts installing WFC-3 camera on Hubble Space Telescope in 2009

Teams, committees, call them what you will, were the secret, and the Camera Teams were at the very heart of the entire enterprise. Only the cameras on board could exploit the full power of the telescope, and so deliver its most ambitious science. But what was that science to be? Before they designed a single lens it was those instrument teams , and those alone , which had to peer far into the future and try to imagine the most exciting questions that the telescope would be called upon to answer.

I was lucky enough to attend the first meeting of the Faint Object Camera team in 1977, and the last meeting of the Wide-Field-Camera-3 team, in 2010. So I feel well placed to describe our long voyage of discovery, as one of the on-board crew. I have chosen to tell it in novel form because what was to happen had to first germinate in the human heart and mind, the drivers of everything else. It also allowed me to cut many a tedious corner while keeping the true cast of thousands to less than Tolstoyian size. I hope readers, and in particular fellow members of the crew, will forgive me for that, and certainly for omitting episodes and heroes they feel should have been included. But this is meant to be a human story of a very human endeavour, not the synoptic history which will no doubt emerge when we have all gone.

Since The HST story occupies much of my three novels:

The Whispering Sky ( 1976 to 1983)

Crouching Giant (1983 to 1995). and

Beyond the Western Stars (1996 to 2011)

all Amazon Publishing (2020)

I won’t say more here. However I intend to add, from time to time , images and scraps which could enrich the reader’s experience of the adventure. and I would be grateful if readers, or ex-comrades, could suggest more.

Here is the recent Ultraviolet Ultra Deep Field image taken with Hubble WFC-3, the deepest picture of the universe ever taken, and illustrating its capability as a Time Machine. Apart from the odd spikey star all the objects are galaxies vast distances away. The tiniest reddest ones have redshifts as large as 7 indicating that we are seeing them as they were over ten billion years ago. The Sun is only 5 billion yeas old. Copyright NASA/ESA/stsci.

Hubble would have been a disaster without the Space Shuttle, which not only launched it back in 1990 but visited it 5 times thereafter, to adjust for the flawed mirror, make innumerable repairs, and install new instruments like WFC-3, the camera which is still up there working perfectly after 11 years in orbit. Man seldom gets things right first time; we do our best by tinkering, by Evolution. Without Shuttle that would not have been possible, and I fear that HST’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, whose launch has been postponed at least a dozen times already, could be a disaster because it has no such means for repair. Anyway below you will see a panoramic view of the Cape Canaveral launch-site in 2009 with Shuttle Atlantis on Pad 39-A about to go up on its final mission STS 125 to the telescope, carrying WFC-3, along with its brave crew. In the background is Shuttle Endeavour on Pad 39-B, standing by to act as a Lifeboat to bring the crew back should Atlantis experience a serious failure, as happened with Columbia. In the background is Merritt Island nature reserve. If you zoom in enough, you might spot Morgan swimming up one of the alligator infested creeks to get as near to Atlantis as he could.

Those interested in following up the treasury of wonderful Hubble images and what they signify, can go to websites such as stsci.edu, nasa.gov, eso.org , http://www.cosmos.esa.int, and http://www.spacetelescope.org.

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