Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Hubble Space Telescope

There are other ways to escape the seeing caused by the earth’s atmosphere: You can get above and away from the atmosphere. In fact, for observing in some portions of the electromagnetic spectrum, it is absolutely required to get above the earth’s atmosphere. That is just what NASA, in conjunction with the European Space Agency, did with the Hubble Space Telescope. High above the earth’s atmosphere, the HST regularly achieves its theoretical resolution.
The HST was deployed from the cargo bay of the space shuttle Discovery in 1990. The telescope is equipped with a 94-inch (2.4-meter) reflecting telescope, capable of 10 times the angular resolution of the best Earthbased telescopes and approximately 30 times more sensitive to light, not because it is bigger than telescopes on the earth, but because it is above the earth’s atmosphere. Unfortunately, due to a manufacturing flaw, the curvature of the 2.4-meter mirror was off by literally less than a hair (it was too flat by 1⁄50 of the width of a human hair), which changed its focal length. The telescope still focused light, but not where it needed to, in the plane of the various detectors.

Astronauts aboard the shuttle Endeavour rendezvoused with the HST in space in 1993 and made repairs—primarily installing a system of small corrective mirrors. HST then began to transmit the spectacular images that scientists had hoped for and the world marveled at. Subsequent repair missions have installed the short-lived but productive infrared camera (NICMOS) and other instrumentation. A final servicing mission is planned for 2003, after which HST will be replaced by the Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST) near 2010.

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