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Celebrating the Hubble Space Telescope from its Beginnings to its Thirtieth Anniversary

Hubble Unveils a Galaxy in Living Color. NASA on The Commons.

This post was authored by Stephanie Marcus, Science Reference Librarian in the Science, Technology, and Business Division and Coordinator for the Library’s NASA Earth and Space Lecture Series.

The Hubble observatory was the first major optical telescope to be placed in space. Unencumbered by Earth’s blurring atmosphere, the space observatory unveils the universe in unprecedented crystal-clear sharpness across a broad range of wavelengths, from ultraviolet to near-infrared light. Scientists have used Hubble to observe the most distant stars and galaxies, as well as the planets in our solar system and it has stumbled upon exoplanets, too.  In addition to a constant flow of spectacular photographs, Hubble has helped to solve questions, such as the age of the universe (now pegged at 13.8 billion years), and has presented new mysteries—finding out that the universe is expanding and that dark matter and dark energy are out there.

Hermann Oberth. NASA on The Commons.

Going way back, German physicist Hermann Oberth, born in 1894 in what is now Romania, became obsessed with Jules Verne’s books as a child and began building rockets. As he experimented, he believed they could be liquid-fueled and thought they should be multi-staged. He became one of the founding fathers of rocketry and privately published a book in 1923 in which he proposed a rocket propelling a telescope into Earth orbit (the book title in German, Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen, is translated as: The Rocket into Planetary Space). He had proposed this as his doctoral thesis, but it was rejected as utopian.  However, it was then accepted by the University of Cluj, Romania. Oberth was a mentor of Werner Von Braun and later worked for him both in Germany and the U.S. on rocket research.  He died in Germany in December 1989, not long before his idea became a reality.

In 1946, Princeton astrophysicist Lyman Spitzer wrote about the benefits of a telescope above Earth’s atmosphere in a paper, “Astronomical Advantages of an Extra-Terrestrial Observatory.” In 1965 the National Academy of Sciences established a committee to define the objectives for a proposed Large Space Telescope and Spitzer was chosen as its head.  After NASA had launched two Orbital Astronomical Observatories (OAO) into orbit, he gathered support from other astronomers for a “large orbital telescope.”  The four OAO were launched from 1966-1972 and managed by NASA’s chief of astronomy, Nancy Grace Roman.  Two of the satellites failed, but OAO-2 (1968-1973), nicknamed Stargazer, which carried eleven ultraviolet telescopes, was the direct ancestor of Hubble, followed by OA3 (1972-1981) Copernicus, which carried an x-ray detector.  In 1969, the National Academy of Sciences gave its approval for the Large Space Telescope (LST).

The silvery telescope, with its aperture door open, is sharply contrasted by the velvety blackness of space. NASA on The Commons.

Hubble’s launch and deployment in April 1990 marked the most significant advance in astronomy since Galileo’s telescope. The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.  After five servicing missions and thirty years of operation, Hubble is still going strong and is expected to stay operational through the 2020s, in synergy with the upcoming (2021) James Webb Space Telescope.

This year the Science, Technology and Business Division’s Space and Earth Sciences Lecture Series was to have featured Dr. Jennifer Wiseman on June 10 presenting: The Hubble Space Telescope: Unveiling an Incredible Universe.  Dr. Wiseman, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, began her career at NASA in 2003 as Program Scientist for Hubble and is now the Senior Project Scientist on the mission.  She continues the tradition of women scientists who have played an important role in the creation of the Hubble and the thirty years during which it has provided us with amazing images and exciting discoveries.

Dr. Wiseman, whose primary responsibility is to ensure that the Hubble mission is as scientifically productive as possible, grew up on a small farm in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas.  As a child, she was awed by the star-filled skies.  She made her way to study physics at MIT and even discovered a comet, 114P/Wiseman-Skiff, on a field trip to Arizona. Wiseman earned a Ph.D. in astronomy at Harvard and was a Hubble Fellow at Johns Hopkins.

Dr. Nancy Roman is shown with a model of the Orbiting Solar Observatory (OSO). NASA on The Commons.

Long before Dr. Wiseman took the reins of the Hubble, Nancy Grace Roman, born in 1925, was learning about the constellations from her mother. By the time she was in high school, she realized she had a passion for astronomy.  Roman was raised in a time when women were discouraged from pursuing a science career, but she not only stubbornly succeeded in becoming a research astronomer, she was named the first chief of astronomy at NASA in 1959, not long after NASA was founded, becoming the first woman in a leadership position at NASA. Often called the “Mother of Hubble,” due to her efforts in making the Hubble Space Telescope a reality, Dr. Roman was influential in establishing the new era of space-based astronomical instrumentation. Dr. Roman passed away in December 2018 at 93 years of age.  Just recently, the space telescope known as the WFIRST (which stands for Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope) was named the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope in her honor.  The new telescope, scheduled to launch in 2025, will have 100 times the view of Hubble. It’s expected to photograph thousands of new exoplanets and probe the nature of dark energy.

While you’re sheltering at home, you might be interested in viewing webcasts of previous lectures we’ve recorded on this topic, such as Finding Our Origins with the Hubble & James Webb Space Telescopes and Magnifying the Universe.

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