Edwin, His Hooker, and Hubble Trouble

Happy belated World Penguin Day! I’d like to congratulate my friends who decided to play Adelie to mark the day and hope that others enjoyed it in their own way. In case you missed out on the flightless, feathered fun of last Saturday, set your calendars for April 25, 2016 and get an early start on it next year. While I’m on the subject of April 25th and the Earth’s rotation, I’d like to talk to you about a certain orbital telescope and the man it’s named after.

On April 24, 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) was launched into low Earth orbit aboard the space shuttle Discovery. It was floating around the globe on its own the following day, and has been snapping and sending us pictures of the wonders of the universe ever since. HST has been a standard in the sky (or just above it) for most of my life, but it was a long time coming. Astronomers had hoped for an orbiting telescope placed beyond the pesky atmosphere – which often puts a damper on stargazing thanks to its affinity for absorbing light waves like ultraviolet and the tricks it plays with diffraction – for as far back as the 1920s. Throughout the decades, more people chimed in on the benefits of having a telescope free from Earthly confines insofar as being attached to the ground (low Earth orbit is still very close to the Earth, and, as you may have gathered, within its gravitational pull), yet nothing truly telescopic was developed until HST. There were a few similar experiments that served as pioneers for HST, like NASA’s Orbiting Solar Observatory (OSO) experiments which were satellites placed into orbit in the 60s and 70s to record observations of the sun in infrared and ultraviolet wavelengths, as well as some other galactic observations like gamma ray bursts from other stars.

These missions helped to pave the way for the Large Space Telescope (LST) that NASA proposed in 1968, with the hope of being launched in 1979. Despite the less advanced technical capabilities then, this was still a more than realistic timetable for even such a complex project, but that constant thorn in NASA’s side, major budget constraints, reared its ugly head again, and the project was shelved for many years, before all funding for it was cut. A massive meet and greet between astronomers and legislators and a report headed by the National Academy of Sciences urged for a reconsideration for the LST, and remarkable it was granted! The Senate allowed for the spending of half the original budget approved by Congress, but NASA said, “We’ll fuckin’ take it!” and got to work once more. This did lead to them downsizing the project, literally – the original design was shrunk. The European Space Agency (ESA) came to the rescue by building the solar panels that would serve as the LST’s power source. All they wanted in return was a chance to use the finished project for a small percentage of the time. US Congress dished out a little more money in 1978 and the two space agencies hoped to get their orbital telescope up, up, and away by 1983. They didn’t, but they did christen it the Hubble Space Telescope and set a new goal of launching it by October of 1986. However, this would not to fruition either, as a result of one of the greatest space tragedies.

On January 28, 1986, NASA suffered its second fatally catastrophic mission when the space shuttle Challenger exploded on its ascent, killing all seven crew members. The devastating accident grounded the shuttles and set back all space research and development, Hubble included, for many years.

Fortunately, Hubble and other projects continued, though at great expense. The now complete telescope had to be preserved in a special room cleaned with nitrogen until it could be launched. For four years it remained in this room, its preservation coating around $6 million dollars each month it sat there. Finally, it was packed aboard Discovery and set in its place among the stars, where it has been dazzling us with breathtaking images that have helped us to realize our place in the universe though our insignificant size yet very significant location.

Hubble Space Telescope is definitely super cool, but how did it get its name? Why not just call it “Toilet Paper Tube Covered in a Pop Tart Wrapper Space Telescope”? Because it wasn’t a toilet paper tube who discovered galaxies outside of our own and further determined the expansion of the universe, that’s why.

Edwin Powell Hubble was an American astronomer and cosmologist who realized that some of the clusters of gas astronomers had classified as nebulae were actually other galaxies! He discovered Cepheid variables (stars that help to calculate the distance from or within a galaxy) in the Andromeda Nebula which led him to the determination that it is truly the Andromeda Galaxy – the galaxy we base our models of the Milky Way on (because it’s a little hard to take a galactic selfie). He found these stars and others like them while peering through the Hooker Telescope at the Mount Wilson Observatory in Pasadena, California. The Hooker Telescope is a 100-inch reflecting scope (as in the lens is 100 inches; the telescope is much bigger) that was much more tedious and time-consuming to operate than today’s computerized scopes that only really need someone to turn them on and program them. Back in the day, Hubble would look through the Hooker and manually followed the paths of stars over the course of many nightly hours.

Hubble also noticed that objects farther away from Earth were moving faster away from Earth, thereby indicating that the universe is expanding. This was actually previously discovered and published by Belgian priest and scientist Georges Lemaitre in the 1920s (the same guy also first devised what would become the BIg Bang Theory based off of this). Nevertheless, Hubble refined the numbers on the value of the rate of expansion and this value was named “Hubble’s Constant” and the whole thing is known now as “Hubble’s Law”. Not bad for a guy who spent his nights with a big Hooker in southern California.

The Hubble legacy lives on in the space telescope and physical constant that bears the astronomer’s name. HST will stay on active duty until its successor scope, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is put into orbit in 2018. Until then, keep knocking our socks off HST.

hubble-spiral-galaxies

Thanks for reading! If you’d like to read more about Edwin Hubble and the space scope named after him check out these articles: Hubble’s Other Telescope And The Day It Rocked Our World, and 25 Years of the Hubble Space Telescope: A Story of Redemption. If you have any questions or comments for me leave them here or send them to monotrememadness@gmail.com. Be sure to orbit back here next week for the third State of the Season, my annual wrap-up of the last three months-worth of blog posts to learn some of the behind-the-scenes information and making-of details.

Keep looking to the stars,

Alex

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