After months of anticipation the Space Shuttle Atlantis finally blasted into space on Monday afternoon (For those of us in South Africa it would have been early Tuesday morning) carrying seven astronaughts and a barrage of new equipment with which they will extend the life of the Hubble Telescope until 2014 (hopefully a little longer). This is the last servicing mission for the world famous telescope and she will only last as long as the six new batteries which astronaughts John Grusfeld and Andrew Feustel will install over the course of the next week.
After almost 20 years in orbit (Hubble was launched on the 24th of April 1990) around the Earth, Hubble has revolutionised our understanding of our universe. The key project of the HST was to accurately measure the distance to Cepheid variable stars (a type of variable star which has a period of variability closely related to it’s luminosity), this allowed astronomers to calculate an accurate value for the Hubble constant and in so doing measure the rate of the expansion of the universe.
The HST was also used in the Supernova Cosmology Project during which it uncovered the startling evidence that the expansion of the univers is not decelerating due to gravity, but is in fact increasing. The high resolution images returned by the HST also helped to confirm the existence of black holes at the centers of nearby galaxies.
Shortly after the first servicing mission the HST captured the amazing impact of comet Schumaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter (1994).
With it’s high resolution cameras and atmosphere-free orbit, the HST was ablt to capture some of the most famous images in history;
The HST will be succeeded by the James Webb Space Telescope which is an orbiting infrared telescope designed to see the most ancient and distant objects in the universe. The very first stars and galaxies to form after the big bang will hopefully be revealed to this telescope. The Hubble Telescope has revolutionised our understanding of the universe, we now know that it is expanding, that this expansion is accelerating, that galaxies are motes of stars and dust being whipped through space by black holes at their centres, to mention but a few of this amazing satellite’s discoveries. I eagerly await the amazing science to be revealed in the last five years of this pioneer’s life.
Hubble Space Telescope – Thank you!