Jeletic and his team are also trying to anticipate potential accidents. For example, they found that the thin wires that Hubble’s gyroscopes depend on are gradually corroding and breaking, and that three of its six gyros have failed. Without gyroscopes, Hubble cannot target anything correctly. But on the last maintenance mission, the astronauts replaced the gyroscopes and upgraded the wires so they couldn’t corrode, solving the problem.
Nonetheless, each new hitch inevitably raises concerns about the aging telescope, which has been instrumental in many astronomical achievements, including determining the age of the universe and discovering Pluto’s smallest moons. “I think it’s been totally transformational,” says Adam Riess, astronomer at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for showing how measurements of exploding stars, or supernovas, reveal the accelerating expansion of the universe, a project that benefited from Hubble data. To this day, the telescope continues to be oversubscribed by at least five times, says Riess, which means astronomers have more than five times as many suggestions for using Hubble as there is time available. for the telescope.
The space telescope also served as an educational tool and sparked public interest in space science for an entire generation. “Everyone knows Hubble,” says Jeyhan Kartaltepe, an astronomer at the Rochester Institute of Technology, whose work on several galaxy surveys makes extensive use of Hubble images. “It has become a household name. People love to read articles about what Hubble discovered and they love to see the photos. I think people have an immediate association of Hubble with astronomy.
Hubble’s latest hardware challenges come just a month before its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is launched into orbit. Like its iconic predecessor, the new telescope will collect spectacular image treasures, although it is designed to probe wavelengths further in the infrared range, allowing it to penetrate the dusty parts of galaxies and stellar nebulae. Riess expects him to be equally popular with astronomers and the public.
Hubble easily exceeded its intended lifespan, and so did NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, which launched in 1999 and remains operational, although it was designed to last only five. years. That’s a good sign for Webb, also slated for a five-year lifespan. Unlike Hubble, however, it will orbit much further, making it inaccessible to astronauts. This means that any issues that arise will have to be resolved remotely.
But Hubble helped pave the way for his successor. For example, after the launch of Hubble, engineers realized that its mirror was not curved correctly, which initially resulted in blurry images. Webb’s design allows engineers to remotely adjust the curvature if an error like this occurs.
Astronomers appreciate the hard work of Hubble engineers and operators. “Their dedication to continuing to save the telescope from all of its temper tantrums and mood swings is fantastic. I’m so proud that they are supporting the scientists who use the data, ”says Julianne Dalcanton, an astronomer at the University of Washington who has used Hubble frequently throughout her career, notably to map Andromeda, our galactic neighbor. She, Kartaltepe and other astronomers are eagerly awaiting a time when Hubble and Webb will be in the sky, making observations together, especially as they will learn different things from the respective instruments of the telescopes and the length blanket. wave.
While Jeletic and his team don’t yet know when Hubble will be back online, he expects all systems to be up and running again. “One day Hubble will die, like all other spaceships,” he says. “But I hope it’s still a long way off.”
More great WIRED stories