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NOTE (November 2000): This Bitesize Snack is the last one for some time. Please see my note about this!

Hubble's Tenth

Week of April 24, 2000

This week is a special anniversary. Monday, April 24th, 2000 marks the tenth anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) into space.

At 833:51 a.m. Eastern (US) time on April 24th, 1990, the Space Shuttle Discovery lifted off the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center and minutes later was in orbit. Hubble was deployed shortly thereafter. Since that time, 3653 days ago, Hubble has orbited the Earth approximately 60,000 times and has traveled about 2.5 billion kilometers in that time.

We've all seen the images from Hubble, and heard the scientists and politicians talk about it. You've even heard me talk about it many times. We scientists are a garrulous lot, and we'll talk for hours at the drop of a hat about what we study!

We get asked questions all the time from the public. The most common question is, ``What is the most important thing we have learned from Hubble?'' The people asking it always expect answers like, ``We learned how fast the Universe is expanding,'' or ``We found incontrovertible evidence for black holes'' and the like.

That's not the answer I give. I've seen more than my share of Hubble images, from nearby planets to galaxies so far away they numb the mind. We have learned a tremendous amount from these images and spectra, and practically no field of astronomy is untouched by Hubble.

But there is a relatively new field, and one that until very recently was rather spurned by many astronomers. That field involves communicating astronomy to the public. Carl Sagan was probably the breakthrough for astronomy public outreach, with his unique style and ability to portray the wonder and awe of (dare I say it?) the cosmos. We need more people like him.

Hubble was perhaps the second breakthrough. People have always loved the pictures from telescopes, and there have been hundreds or thousands of picture books about astronomy. But with Hubble, and of course the ability to combine and enhance pictures using computers, the images came alive. Who hasn't seen the picture of the Eagle Nebula and been amazed by the detail and beauty of it? Two of my favorites are the pictures of aurorae on Saturn and Jupiter.

These images and many more from HST are easily available to anyone with web access. That is what I think is the most important contribution to science made by HST. Not the actual science, per se, but the impact it has had on the public's mind and heart. I work with astronomy every day, all day, and I never cease to feel the excitement and deep sense of awe it inspires. Hubble has brought that feeling to everyone, whatever level of understanding of astronomy they have. Even better, other observatories are releasing beautiful images as well, ensuring that everyone gets a chance to see all these gorgeous objects.

Hubble has a limited lifetime, and is currently scheduled to be decommissioned in 2010. Between now and then will be at least two more servicing missions, to upgrade current instruments onboard or install new ones. NASA has many more telescopes planned for launch after Hubble has served out its duty, but Hubble will always be remembered as the one that brought astronomy home.

©2008 Phil Plait. All Rights Reserved.

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