Thoughts & Insights

A Friend in Space

Who doesn’t know them, the lively R2D2 and the stiff highly polished 3-CPO? They’re the companions and helpers of the Star Wars heroes, sometimes even their saviours when the going gets really tough. A lot more than just machines, they have their own personalities which make them not only friends of the heroes but favourites with the audience too. The Hubble Space Telescope is real and has nothing of all this. Even so, it has become the darling not only of scientists but of an interested world audience.  

How great sympathy on Earth for this device is now is shown by the fact that its “round” birthdays are properly celebrated – its thirtieth one almost exactly one year ago. It’s also evident from the fact that –unlike the LHC at CERN in Geneva for instance – the billions it has cost to build, equip, run and occasionally update have never been seriously criticised.  This is highly unusual.

It wasn’t always so from day one. After all, the telescope still hadn’t shown what it could really do. The initial criticism became really vociferous shortly after Hubble’s start in April 1990 when the first images it sent to Earth turned out to be blurred and thus unusable. Even terrestrial telescopes could produce better pictures.  Criticism of the costs was reinforced by ridicule and scorn. It could well have meant Hubble’s early demise.

But it didn’t. Everybody deserves a second chance carried the day. And Hubble got one. After all, it was human error in the manufacturing of the mirror, undetected before the launch, that was responsible for the poor quality of the images. It had been ground incorrectly. To prevent Project Hubble from becoming a grandiose billion dollar flop before it even got started, a servicing mission was sent into space in 1993. Two astronauts with great courage corrected the error 550 kilometres above the Earth’s atmosphere. And the telescope immediately started streaming breath-taking pictures of star clusters, gas nebulae and galaxies as well as images of objects in our solar system. Asked about its high cost, Hubble veteran Mario Livio once replied: „Well, it’s given us the universe – it’s cheap at the price.”  This is how Hubble became our eye in space.

This eye made visible to us what had long been mathematically calculated but what up till that point had been abstract and unimaginable. The incredible beauty of the universe is revealed to us in individual fantastic formations like the “Eagle Nebulae”, the “Three Pillars of Creation” or in the fascinating forms of diverse galaxies – from spiral galaxies to sombrero galaxies. This moves us and inspires us. Human feelings are not triggered by mathematical formula or equations but by sensory perceptions and experiences. Hubble provided us with picture experiences like no other and still continues to do so. Pictures that trigger feelings of happiness, amazement, astonishment and also awe in us. We are simply enthralled by what we see and can’t get enough of it. This is probably one, if not the most important, reason for the love that so many people feel for this flying “tin can”, the size of a school bus.

Beyond the images that practically everyone on the earth is now familiar with, Hubble’s eye also gives us insights into far-flung regions of our universe like the “Ultra Deep Field”. It thus provides us with a unique photographic history book on the creation and expansion of the universe. Because “far away” in the universe always means “long ago”.

In 2009 Hubble was equipped with a completely new camera – the Wide Field Camera 3 – and can now photograph galaxies beyond visible light in the infrared of the Ultra Deep Field, galaxies that were formed shortly before the formation of our own universe some 13.7 billion years ago – just 700 million years after the so-called “Big Bang”.  This is sensational. Hubble lets us look back almost to the beginnings of our universe and at the same time lets us track its expansion across over billions and millions of years. It can make you dizzy. For those who would like to see all this explained clearly, we recommend the instructive and entertaining 30 minute video Hubble´s Universe Unfiltered: Deep Universe which is ideal for beginners, provided that they can speak English.

That OUBEY back in 1984, twenty five years before the Hubble Space Telescope with its new space camera was able to look into the beginnings of our universe, had fixed this view so definitely in his mind’s eye that he was able artistically to capture what he saw in his picture Einstein’s Tears, defies belief. Yet the astronomer Dr Cecilia Scorza from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg noted just that with a mixture of astonishment and wonder when she encountered this picture in February 2010. She explained, using OUBEYs painting what can be explained to us today using the Hubble telescope’s shots from the Ultra Deep Field.

At some point, Hubble’s time will come to an end. Development of a successor is already well underway: The James Webb Telescope, an infrared telescope with a mirror diameter of 6.5 meters, will be ideal for peering into the oldest regions of the universe. Until then, Hubble will continue to orbit the Earth fifteen times a day from a great distance, providing us with ever new images and insights.

“I hope that we’ll know well in advance when and where Hubble will come down in the South Pacific. Then all of us who have worked so long with Hubble can charter a cruise ship and be present at its end. It will be sad and we’re sure to cry. But at the same time, there’ll be this joy around for all this wonderful science that Hubble has given us over the decades” says Heide Hammel, Voyager project scientist, who together with Hubble is observing the atmospheres of the gas planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptunet1. This doesn’t sound like the decommissioning of a machine. It sounds like leave-taking of a good friend.



1Quoted from the programme “Das mit den Sternen tanzt” on the DLF Kulturkanal on 9.4.2020

For more information about Hubble, please click here.


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