Gilitec and his team are also trying to anticipate possible accidents. For example, they found that Hubble’s thin gyroscopes rely on progressive wear and breakage, and three of the six have failed. Without the gyroscope, Hubble can’t target anything properly. But on a recent maintenance mission, the astronauts replaced the gyroscopes and reinforced the wires so they wouldn’t corrode, which solved the problem.
However, each new obstacle inevitably raises concerns about the old telescope, which was instrumental in many astronomical achievements, including determining the age of the universe and the discovery of Pluto’s smaller moons. “I think it was quite transformative,” says Adam Rees, an astronomer at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for showing how measurements of exploding stars, or supernovae, reveal the accelerating expansion of the universe, a project that took advantage of Hubble data. To this day, Reese says, the telescope still has at least a five-fold chance of overshoot, which means astronomers have more than five times the number of proposals to use Hubble than when the telescope has available.
The space telescope has also served as an educational tool and sparked public interest in space science for a generation. “Everyone knows Hubble,” says Jeyhan Kartaltepe, an astronomer at Rochester Institute of Technology who has done his work on surveys of multiple galaxies using intense Hubble images. “It has become a household name. People enjoy reading articles about what Hubble has discovered, and they enjoy seeing images. I think people have a direct connection between Hubble and astronomy.”
Hubble’s latest hardware challenge comes just a month before its successor, James Webb Space TelescopeIt is scheduled to be launched into orbit. Like its iconic predecessor, the new telescope will collect a range of stunning images, although it is designed to explore wavelengths more in infrared range, allowing it to penetrate the dusty parts of galaxies and stellar nebulae. Reese expects it to be similarly popular with astronomers and the public.
The Hubble telescope has easily exceeded its life expectancy, and the same is true for NASA Chandra X-ray Observatory, which was launched in 1999 and is still in operation, although it is designed to last only five years. This is a good sign for Webb, similarly planned for five years. Unlike the Hubble telescope, it will orbit much further away, making it inaccessible to astronauts. This means that any problems that arise remotely should be fixed.
But Hubble helped pave the way for his successor. For example, after Hubble was launched, engineers realized that its mirror wasn’t curved properly, which initially resulted in blurry images. Webb’s design allows engineers to remotely adjust the curvature if such an error occurs.
Astronomers appreciate the hard work of Hubble’s engineers and operators. “Their dedication to continuing to save the telescope from all of its tantrums and mood swings is remarkable. Julian Dalcanton, an astronomer at the University of Washington who has used Hubble so much throughout her career, including mapping Andromeda, our galactic neighbor, says, “I am very proud of their support for scientists. who use the data.” She, Kartaltepe and other astronomers are looking forward to a time when Hubble and Webb are in the sky, and taking observations together, especially as they will learn different things from special telescopes instruments and wavelength coverage.
While Gillitech and his team don’t yet know when Hubble will be back online, he expects all systems will eventually be up and running again. “One day Hubble will die, like any other spacecraft,” he says. “But I hope this is still a long way off.”
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