HONOLULU — Astronomers kicked off 2020 by welcoming the 30th anniversary year of NASA’s venerable Hubble Space Telescope here at their largest annual gathering.
During the first full day of the 235th American Astronomical Society conference (Jan. 5), a team of scientists affiliated with the instrument shared their highlights from the mission. Over the course of its decade in flight, the Hubble Space Telescope has produced not just scientific results, but also a host of iconic images of the universe around us.
“We flooded the world with jaw-dropping pictures, month after month and year after year,” Ray Villard, a long-time public affairs officer working on Hubble for the Space Telescope Science Institute that runs it, said during the event. “These pictures, they really have redefined the universe for public, and they speak to public at visceral and emotional level that is far beyond the scientific understanding.”
And as scientists emphasized throughout the presentation, many of Hubble’s impacts couldn’t have been predicted when the instrument launched. Take, for example, exoplanets, of which zero had been identified at Hubble’s launch in 1990. Now, scientists know of more than 4,000 such distant worlds, and the space telescope has been a vital tool for studying and identifying them.
Hubble has been a key instrument for directly imaging exoplanets, Nikole Lewis, an astrophysicist at Cornell University, said during the event. Scientists have never actually seen most of the exoplanets they have discovered, except for those that have been directly imaged — and Hubble’s data archives are allowing scientists to see more of these worlds.
“These were basically images that were taken before we knew those planets were there,” Lewis said. “We were able to dig back into the archives of these data and find planets that were just buried before.” That research can continue even after Hubble’s eventual demise.
Related: How the Hubble Space Telescope Works
Scientists are well aware that things could have gone very differently for Hubble. After the instrument launched in 1990, astronomers were dismayed to see that all its images were fuzzy. Engineers traced the problem to a manufacturing error in the telescope’s mirror.
But Hubble was special: It had been designed so that astronauts flying the space shuttle could repair it. In 1993, the first such mission launched and fixed Hubble’s infamous mirror issue; four additional servicing missions visited the instrument before the space shuttle was retired.
Since 2009, Hubble has been on its own. A couple of glitches in late 2018 and early 2019 reminded scientists how lucky they were to have the telescope. But overall, the grizzled spacecraft is doing well, Jennifer Wiseman, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said during the panel. The gyros that allow the spacecraft to point at targets are lasting well, as are the batteries that run the machinery and the science instruments themselves.
And astronomers of all stripes are dedicated to getting every drop of Hubble data that they can. The mission is a vital for understanding our own neighborhood as well as the greater universe around us. Heidi Hammel, an astronomer at the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy emphasized in particular the way the Hubble Space Telescope’s work benefits missions that NASA sends to visit solar system destinations.
It was the Hubble Space Telescope that allowed for last year’s record-breaking New Horizons flyby of a Kuiper Belt object now dubbed Arrokoth. That object wasn’t discovered until long after the spacecraft launched; it was Hubble images that spotted it and determined it could be a good target for the mission’s second act.
“It’s been a superb solar-system explorer and it will continue to be as long as it’s working,” Hammel said. “I’m a lifetime Hubble-hugger.”