It was 25 years ago this week that NASA was finally able to launch its most ambitious robot explorer: the Hubble Telescope. Delays caused by software glitches and the Challenger disaster had pushed the launch date back from 1986 to 1990.
The original price tag of $400 million eventually ballooned to $2.5 billion — a massive cost overrun even for NASA. The agency was betting that once the telescope experienced “First Light,” it would be seen as worth the investment.
The company in charge of manufacturing, shaping, and polishing the 2.5 meter mirror assembled a measuring device incorrectly, leading to an error in polishing of about 1.3 millimeters. There were several opportunities to catch the error before launch, but the company — PerkinElmer — failed to do so. When the telescope took its first photos a month later, scientists realized to their horror that the Hubble was nearsighted.
The project became the butt of jokes and Congress was outraged. But NASA came up with a fix for the mirror — complex “spectacles” that would clear up about 98% of the image problem. In December 1993, after training for two years for the complex and dangerous mission, legendary astronaut Story Musgrave and six others rendezvoused with Hubble in space and installed the correctives.
The result was awe-inspiring. Here are a few examples:
The Horsehead Nebula is a dense cloud of gas and dust embedded in a much larger structure
Taken with the Hubble Deep Field lens, this is a tiny portion of the sky showing thousands of galaxies billions of light years away.
The Butterfly Nebula. What resemble dainty butterfly wings are actually roiling cauldrons of gas heated to more than 36,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
DEM L 90: Resembling the puffs of smoke and sparks from a summer fireworks display, these delicate filaments are actually sheets of debris from a stellar explosion in a neighboring galaxy.
Mystic Mountain: A stellar nursery with thousands of new suns forming.
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The telescope doesn’t only take pictures in visible light. It is also capable of looking at distant objects in the infrared and ultraviolet spectrum, giving scientists an incredible look at the inner workings of the universe.
There is no doubt that the Hubble has performed spectacularly. But has it been worth it?
The Hubble has revolutionized our view of the universe.
“Even the most optimistic person to whom you could have spoken back in 1990 couldn’t have predicted the degree to which Hubble would rewrite our astrophysics and planetary science textbooks,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said at the image-unveiling event. “A quarter-century later, Hubble has fundamentally changed our understanding of our universe, and our place in it.”
At its current pace, the Hubble telescope produces 10TB of new data per year — enough to fill the entire collection of the Library of Congress, Bolden said. At that same event, Kathy Flanagan, interim director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which operates Hubble’s science program, said scientists using data from the telescope have produced “nearly 13,000” science papers.
This week, NASA hosted a Hubble symposium to discuss major science results from the telescope. The space agency also has hosted Hubble-themed events for the press and the general public, as well as a Friday night (April 24) gala to honor many of the people who made Hubble what it is today. Few, if any other, NASA projects have garnered such an ovation.
If you make the argument that $2.5 billion spent on a science project is too much, it would be hard to argue against the point. But can you put a price tag on the human need to explore and understand our universe? The money was spent over a decade, meaning that it cost about a dollar a year per American to build the telescope. Given the huge return on this investment, this is a small price to pay to immeasurably add to the storehouse of human knowledge.