Today marks the 30th birthday of The Hubble Space Telescope (HST). On the 24th of April 1990 NASA launched Hubble into low earth orbit and it is still up there today! Hubble has allowed us to see deep within the caverns of space, revealing the most incredible and famous images that we have of our universe. Here at AOP we want to wish Hubble a big happy birthday and to show our appreciation, some of our Astronomers and some of our Education Team have shared thoughts and reflections on Hubble and its impact on astronomy.
Sinead Mackle – Education and Outreach Manager
At AOP we have a model of the Hubble Space Telescope in our exhibition area. One of my favourite facts is that it is the size of a bus and orbits the Earth every 95 minutes.
Hubble has released images taken on each day of the year. On my birthday it was the Whirlpool Galaxy. I love this image as it has links to Ireland and to Birr Castle. In 1845, William Parsons who was 3rd Earl of Rosse, observed through a 72-inch (1.8 m) reflecting telescope at Birr Castle in County Offaly and recorded that this object possessed a spiral structure. Although at the time he thought it to be a nebula it was later revealed as a galaxy and named “The Whirlpool Galaxy”.
Nick Parke – Education Officer
When I was young I remember first hearing the name ‘Hubble’ from my older brother, who was very enthusiastic about ‘all things space’. I also recall the spectacular news footage of NASA’s Space Shuttle blasting off on a mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope. It’s great to be able to recall this news footage while seeing more of the telescope’s capabilities and understand better, the irreplaceable contribution it has made to mankind’s knowledge and exploration of space over the decades.
Prof. Jorick Vink
When Hubble observed the “Pillars of Creation” in the Eagle Nebula (M16) in 1995 I was spending a year at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre as an undergraduate student.
I recall vividly that the Washington Post opened with this beautiful image and the headline was “Hubble discovers Heaven”. Well, not quite, but I think it is an amazing picture that highlights my own scientific interests. At the top of the pillars (i) new solar-type T Tauri stars are being created and this evaporation of these dusty pillars is thought to be caused by the (ii) bright lights from the most massive stars that produce black holes.
At the moment HST is observing both these group of objects, T Tauri stars and massive stars as part of the Hubble Director’s initiative called ULLYSES: “Ultraviolet Legacy Library of Young Stars as Essential Standards “, dedicating 1000 HST orbits to study these intriguing objects in detail. In Armagh we are heavily involved in ULLYSES.
Heather Alexander – Operations Manager
Hubble turns 30? Wow can’t help but feel some solidarity with an inanimate object out in space!
I was born almost two weeks after Hubble was launched into Space, so for all of my life, I have only ever known Hubble to be in Space. In fact I don’t really remember find out that it was up there, it feels like I’ve always known.
In terms of my favourite thing HST have provided for us, it has to be the billion pixel mosaic composition of the Orion Nebula using Hubble data.
It is just the most stunning and wondrous image I have ever seen of something out in Space. The nebula is one of the closest star forming regions to the Earth and you can see it with the naked eye in the winter time, but Hubble was able to illuminate it for us in a way, which was impossible before 30 years ago.
Helen McLoughlin – Education Officer
Believe it or not, before I started working at the Planetarium, I had quite a limited knowledge of beyond our solar system. The Hubble Telescope changed all this for me. It fascinated me that a telescope could take such beautiful images. One that sticks in my mind is the Antennae Galaxies. In this image, Hubble has managed to capture the collision between two galaxies. It looks more like a spectacular fireworks show! The Antennae galaxies are located about 62 million light years from Earth.
Anna Taylor – Education Officer
The Hubble telescope has always been in my awareness, and given my interest in space (and learning everything I could) as a child I have seen many images that have been captured by the telescope, and learnt a lot from its discoveries. It has definitely inspired my interest in space, and many of the iconic images that I think of are from Hubble. Happy Birthday!
Prof. Michael Burton – Director
Hubble launched a couple of months before I started work as a staff astronomer with the Anglo Australian Telescope in Australia. An amazing telescope, we’d been talking about it for as long as I could remember, a big telescope in space! And then came those blurry images. Actually not really any worse than the best images you could obtain from the ground. But not was expected for the world’s best telescope?! And then it all turned out to be the result of a simple mistake in the testing lab, which somehow hadn’t been spotted?? But easy to fix, a corrective lens was all that was needed. So a pair of nice new glasses was made, and attached by dispensing with one of the instruments, and Hubble was fixed with 20-20 vision. Hubble started producing the sharp images we’d all been waiting for. I must admit I doubted at the time that the astronauts really could do the fix that was needed in space, but I was wrong, Hubble really had been built to allow repair by simply swapping modules. No need for Joe Astronaut to get out the soldering iron or hand wrench. Hubble’s worked brilliantly ever since, so well in fact that its become part of the furniture, we just expect to see great stuff coming from it, all the time.
At Hubble’s 25th I remember giving a series of talk about the wonders of Hubble. NASA had very kindly prepared the slide show so that all Joe Astronomer needed to do was load it on the laptop. The pictures would speak for themselves. I did end up adding a few slides showing where my own work had been impacted by Hubble. But mostly I just showed the slides, a grand tour of the cosmos, from our solar system, through the galaxy, to the edges of the observable universe!
But when will Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, fly? That has become the big question in astronomy today.
Dr. Marc Sarzi – Head of Research
My best memories of HST relates to the times when its Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) spectrograph was installed in 1997 during its second servicing mission (STS-82). As usual when a new observing facility comes online it is good to be among the first to apply for telescope time and publish papers using such new data. This happened to me at the beginning of my PhD, when I was fortunate enough to join the team conducting the Survey of Nearby Nuclei with STIS (SUNNS) which was led by Prof Hans-Walter Rix and was principally aimed at deriving the mass of the central supermassive black-hole (SMBH) in a sample of 24 galaxies using the motion of the gas in the centre of these objects to deduce the mass of the SMBH (see also my Facebook talk). In the end I was able to carry out such a measurement only for 4 of these objects since, as it turned out, the central gas in galaxies rarely move nicely and smoothly in circular and simple orbits, and often show more chaotic motions that are hard to interpret. Nonetheless, I could also use these data to derive useful upper limits on the black hole mass for all objects and study the central stellar populations of all 24 galaxies, finding out that indeed it is hard to form new stars next to a SMBH. To this day I carry nice memories of those exciting times and still study the very central regions of galaxies with other newer instruments.
Prof. Simon Jeffery
My first memory of Hubble was, as a young postdoc around 1984, a team of colleagues gathered in St Andrews to discuss how we could best use the new telescope to learn more about hydrogen-deficient stars. We agreed to propose to observe V348 Sgr, argued to be a Rosetta Stone for stellar evolution. Unlocking its secrets could explain connections between many exotic classes of star. Of course, the launch kept being put back, so we had learnt a lot more about H-def stars in general, and V348 Sgr itself in the meantime. So when Hubble was launched we had new plans.
But of course, Hubble was broken. This was a disaster for a lot of science programmes which needed ultra-sharp images. But it wasn’t so bad for us spectroscopists; we just had to use a wider slit, lose some resolution, and carry on as before … we treated Hubble as a big IUE (the International Ultraviolet Explorer operated from 1978 to 1996). Hubble has been crucial for us because it could reach farther and fainter in the ultraviolet. It allowed us to measure abundances of elements we could not see from the ground, and it allowed us to do time-resolved Ultraviolet spectroscopy in a way that IUE never could. Of course, once it got its spectacles, pressure on Hubble time was much higher, but it would give us better spectroscopy as well.
Hubble is now many time oversubscribed. I have been fortunate to get time for a few programmes, mostly pulsating H-def stars. There are two Hubble achievements that have made a huge impression on me. One is the imaging programme, especially for planetary nebulae and star-forming regions. Several years ago, Jay English from the Hubble Legacy Team came to Armagh and showed us how some of Hubble’s legendary images were put together, combining light from multiple filters in different ways to startle (go red), please (framing and orientation), and to inform. These images can tell us more in a single frame about the nature of these objects than any number of words.
The second achievement has been the deep field programmes. Pointing at a tiny patch of sky, almost bare of stars, for weeks on end, Hubble sees galaxies that are farther and fainter than any other telescope can image. At the same time it sees back in time to the early Universe when everything looked different, galaxies were hotter, more chaotic, more violent and much closer together. The Deep Field images have transformed the way we understand the Universe in an extremely visual and tactile way that makes cosmology much more accessible.
Sadly, unless something miraculous happened, we will lose Hubble before long. The James Webb Space Telescope will be a fantastic instrument when it is launched, but it will be blind in the ultraviolet, where most of the high-energy processes in our own Galaxy can best be observed.