As a space geek, I often come across folks who don’t know much about the space program in its manned or unmanned forms. These people have heard of the space shuttle and know that men have gone to the moon, but that’s about it. One of the other aspects of the space program that most people know about is the Hubble Space Telescope. They may not know that they know about it, but they’ve seen the images.
The story of the Hubble Space Telescope is a great example of what people can do when they put their minds to something. SInce the early 20th century, astronomers had said that they need a telescope outside Earth’s atmosphere, which while making life on earth possible, really messes with the light that passes through it. Imagine a cake travelling across town from the bakery to your house. The baker loads it in to the truck, the truck drives to your house, the baker unloads the cake, carries it in to your kitchen and one second before the cake it put down on your counter, it shifts and the frosting gets messed up. The cake ends up looking kind of funny, but still tastes good. With light from stars, it’s the same thing. It travels millions of miles to get to earth and in the last hundred or so, gets distorted by our atmosphere, which causes stars to twinkle.
So in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) was launched after many years of design and construction. It was carried to space by the only vehicle that could have done so, the Space Shuttle. From the start, HST gave NASA problems. As it was being set up for deployment by the astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, one of the solar panels didn’t open up all the way. Without the solar panel fully open, the HST would be crippled. So while two astronauts got ready to do an emergency space walk to hand crank the panel out, ground engineers tried to figure the problem out. It took the engineers on the ground about 2 hours, but they were able to find the right command to send to the telescope and the solar panel opened up all the way.
So everything looked great. The telescope was deployed, had full power, and looked to be working correctly. Then the first images came down… They looked slightly out of focus. They were better than earth based images, but were not as good as they should have been. It turns out that HST’s primary mirror had been ground to the wrong specification. The error was minute, about 1/50 the width of a human hair, but it was enough to make the HST, which was the most expensive scientific instrument built at that time to become a national joke.
When designing HST, a decision was made to make it different than any previous man-made satellite. It was designed to be serviceable by astronauts. So, corrective optics were designed and built on the ground, flown to the HST on the Space Shuttle and installed. Thankfully, it worked. The images from Hubble have been coming down since then. There were three more servicing missions to the HST, the lastest (and final) being in 2005.
HST was a revolutionary project which suffered setbacks, those setbacks were overcome, and became what it was intended to be, the most unique satellite that humans have ever launched. HST has given us scientific data we couldn’t have even dreamed about before it was launched.
Why do I bring this up? Late night television is why. Most people have seen images from HST, but don’t necessarily know that their from HST. Enter Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. A couple of months ago, a new character was introduced, Milky J. This guy is in love with the HST, his catch phrase is, “Hubble Gotchu.” You want a picture of the Horse Head Nebula? Hubble Gotchu. You want a picture of …. Hubble Gotchu.
Here’s Milky J’s first segment: http://www.latenightwithjimmyfallon.com/blogs/2010/04/hubble-gotchu/
Here’s Milky J’s second segment: http://www.latenightwithjimmyfallon.com/blogs/2010/05/hubble-gotchu-the-music-video/
Here’s Milky J’s third segment: http://www.latenightwithjimmyfallon.com/blogs/2010/07/tonights-shout-outs-does-hubble-still-gotchu/
Here’s Milky J’s fourth segment: http://www.latenightwithjimmyfallon.com/blogs/2010/08/hubble-got-nasa/
All of them are worth a watch, but the fourth one especially. In it Milky J take a trip to NASA and “talks” to them about why HST is the best. In this segment, they also talk about the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is currently being built as a successor to HST.
All the first three Milky J segments were mostly entertainment, with not much educational value. The final segment did a good job of educating folks on the JWST and did it in an entertaining way. I had look up some of the terms that the JWST engineers mentioned in the video. Also, the interview with Paul Geithner, JWST observatory Manager, did a great job of talking about why the JWST is being built and what it can do.
The NASA Blueshift blog as well as the Geeked on Goddard blog covered the visit from the NASA insider’s perspective.
All in all, HST’s story has been an analog of many people’s lives. It’s had some problems, but in the end ingenuity and hard work have kept it performing better than could have been expected! Remember, HUBBLE GOTCHU!
<Edited 2010-08-11 at 0710 to correct the show to Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Sorry or the error!>