The Spacecraft Tarot: Hubble

The Magician is the ultimate problem-solver.

Undeterred by unexpected hurdles, the Magician chooses to see every challenge as an opportunity to learn and improve. Our goals can be achieved through the Magician’s willpower, creativity, and adaptability.

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope peers into the heavens, capturing image after image of worlds beyond our imagining and stitching them together to create a more complete understanding of our universe. Hubble had a rocky start and continues to face obstacles that need to be overcome for it to remain in service — a perfect analogy for the Magician’s knack for problem-solving.

The idea for Hubble, and for space telescopes in general, stemmed from early realizations about the limitations of looking at the heavens from the surface of Earth. In 1609, the Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo di Vincenzo Bonaiuti de’ Galilei turned a telescope toward the night sky and noticed craters on the Moon, sunspots on the Sun, and other details never before realized. Since then, astronomers have been using this tool to gather information about what lies beyond our home planet.

Early telescopes used clear, curved pieces of glass to focus light on faraway objects. Modern telescopes, including Hubble, use curved mirrors for the same purpose, because they are lighter and easier to make perfectly smooth. The larger the mirror is, the more light it can gather — and the farther you can peer into the distance.

11 years before the launch of Sputnik I in 1957, Princeton University astronomer Lyman S. Spitzer published a paper about the advantages of launching a telescope into space. Although ground-based telescopes can be made very large, the Earth’s atmosphere distorts and blurs any light that comes to us from space. This is why stars appear to twinkle in the sky, and this is also why it’s difficult for astronomers to capture sharp, high-definition images of celestial objects from the ground.

Joining Spitzer in his mission to build a space telescope was Dr. Nancy Grace Roman, affectionately remembered as the “mother of Hubble.” Prior to arriving to NASA in 1959 — less than a year after its formation — Roman was an accomplished radio astronomer, measuring radio waves to piece together the structure of the Milky Way galaxy. Radio waves, just like visible light, are frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum that can be collected and measured. (Other types of instruments can collect other types of waves, such as infrared light, ultraviolet light, and even X-ray light to make observations about faraway objects).

In 1960, Roman became NASA’s first Chief Astronomer and the first woman to hold an executive position at the agency. This was an incredible achievement for a period of time when women were generally discouraged to pursue math and science.

Two years later, the United States National Academy of Sciences, a nonprofit institution that informs policymaking with scientific research, officially recommended that NASA should develop telescopes to be launched into Earth’s orbit. Roman oversaw the first program in the United States to carry out this recommendation: the Orbiting Astronomical Observatories (OAO). NASA developed four OAO satellites, but only two launched successfully — the first being OAO2 on December 7, 1968, also known as Stargazer.

Stargazer provided the first observations of stars in ultraviolet light, which has shorter waves than the visible light we are used to seeing with our eyes. Scientists had to learn how to use star trackers to point the telescope at an object for half an hour or so to gather the information they needed, but the return was great: Stargazer revealed that young, hot stars were hotter than scientists theorized before, and confirmed that comets are surrounded by clouds of hydrogen.

However, the OAO satellites were really just the beginning, a precursor for plans that were already underway to create what would eventually become Hubble.

In 1972, NASA brought forth a plan to collaborate with the European Space Agency (ESA) to develop and launch what was then called the Large Space Telescope (LST), which would make both visible and ultraviolet observations — however, it would take almost twenty years and a multitude of roadblocks before that plan would come to fruition. Roman and others championed for the LST project, arguing for the benefits that LST’s scientific discoveries would bring to the country, but it took five years to secure funding from Congress. LST became Hubble Space Telescope, named after Edwin Hubble, an American astronomer known for his discovery of countless galaxies existing outside our own.

Plans were further halted for Hubble on January 28, 1986, when NASA’s Space Shuttle program suffered a devastating loss. The space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, killing all seven members of the STS-51L crew.

Many factors contributed to the tragic accident — the technological limitations of the O-rings on the solid rocket boosters, the ill-advised decision to launch on a unusually cold day, the pressure to launch on time and not cause any more expensive delays — but ultimately, NASA would need to put all Shuttle missions on hold in order to regroup and safely return to flight. Because the Shuttle program was what was expected to deploy Hubble, that dream for the space telescope would need to be put on hold as well.

Once the space shuttle program had picked back up again, Hubble finally found itself a ride. On April 24, 1990, the space shuttle Discovery launched the 24,000 pound telescope aboard mission STS-31 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The shuttle flew 380 miles above the Earth’s surface, which was a lot higher than usual, in order to deploy Hubble above as much of Earth’s atmosphere as possible. Astronauts used the Shuttle’s robotic arm to lift Hubble out of the payload bay and release it into orbit.

Despite a successful deployment, scientists were disappointed by Hubble’s first images. The 7.9 foot primary mirror had a slight imperfection; the curvature was slightly flatter than it was supposed to be. Although only about 1/50th the width of a human hair, the defect was enough to blur the images.

On December 2, 1993, the Space Shuttle Endeavour lifted off with Hubble’s first Servicing Mission (SM). The astronauts aboard embarked on an unprecedented five spacewalks to repair Hubble, installing an instrument that combined five pairs of corrective mirrors in front of the Faint Object Camera. These corrective mirrors worked similarly to how a pair of eyeglasses correct a person’s vision. As a result, the new Hubble images were crystal clear. This SM was the first of five total that Hubble scientists have used to update the telescope’s technology, make repairs, and increase its longevity.

Despite the setbacks Hubble faced since Spitzer’s initial conception, its discoveries have transformed our understanding of the universe time and time again.

Hubble is so powerful that it can see into the distant past. Although light travels at a mind blowing speed of 186,000 miles per second, the light that emanates from the celestial bodies that Hubble is able to observe are often so far away, it takes billions of years to reach us. This means when we look at these Hubble images of distant galaxies, we are seeing the way these galaxies existed billions of years ago. For the Hubble captures that are especially far away and dim, the telescope needs to be fixed on the same point for days in order to gather enough light to illuminate it.

Galaxies and stars evolve and change on a scale of billions of years. So although we cannot easily observe these changes in real-time, we can capture different galaxies and stars in different stages of their lives, and collage these observations together to make theories about their life cycles. Hubble has shown us that the way galaxies and stars form, thrive, and fall apart is influenced by their interactions with each other. These celestial bodies collide. They coalesce. They collapse.

Hubble’s ability to peek into the distant past has also been able to nail down a more exact age of our universe. Before Hubble, our estimate for the age of universe landed between 10 and 20 billion years. Scientists announced in 1997 that they could reliably narrow it down to 13.8 billion years thanks to Hubble data.

Perhaps the most important contribution that Hubble has made is not what it has done for science, but for culture. Hubble images are everywhere. They are beautiful. They are prolific. They are iconic.

Many of the most well-known images of swirling galaxies and burning stars come from Hubble. These images not only capture the imagination of our world’s inhabitants, they make our universe accessible for everybody. Even people who don’t study science or math can marvel at the sheer beauty of Hubble’s discoveries.

Just like the Magician, Hubble is seeking truth. Piece by piece, Hubble stitches it together from snapshots of space.

Hubble’s rocky start teaches us to not get discouraged by setbacks. Errors can be corrected. Failure can lead us to creative solutions. Knowledge will be gained in the process. The lessons learned from Hubble helped the world prepare for the creation of future space telescopes, such as Chandra X-ray Observatory, Spitzer Space Telescope, and most recently, James Webb Space Telescope.

Hubble reveals that the secret to the Magician’s success is a combination of constant persistence and great patience. In our moments of growth, we will find our success. The success of Hubble has perforated into all aspects of our culture. The space telescope’s discoveries have shaped our understanding of the universe as we know it, and its influence on our lives is undeniable. We too can leave such a profound influence on our world. We too can access the power of the Magician.

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