Printer Friendly
The Free Library
22,741,889 articles and books

End of the line for Hubble? Astronomers ponder space telescope's final years.

Black Friday Black Friday, Sept. 24, 1869, in U.S. history, day of financial panic. In 1869 a small group of American financial speculators, including Jay Gould and James Fisk, sought the support of federal officials of the Grant administration in a drive to corner the gold . That's how Steve Beckwith, director of the Baltimore-based Space Telescope Science Institute The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) is the science operations center for the Hubble Space Telescope (HST; in orbit since 1990) and for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST; scheduled to be launched in 2013).  and his colleagues refer to Jan. 16, 2004, the day that the Hubble Space Telescope Hubble Space Telescope (HST), the first large optical orbiting observatory. Built from 1978 to 1990 at a cost of $1.5 billion, the HST (named for astronomer E. P. Hubble) was expected to provide the clearest view yet obtained of the universe.  got its death sentence. Sean O'Keefe, a NASA NASA: see National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
 in full National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Independent U.S.
 Administrator, handed down the judgment to Beckwith and about 100 other Hubble scientists and engineers in a conference room above Hubble's flight operations center The facility or location on an installation, base, or facility used by the commander to command, control, and coordinate all crisis activities. See also base defense operations center; command center.  at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center The Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) is a major NASA space research laboratory established on May 1, 1959 as NASA's first space flight center. GSFC employs approximately 10,000 civil servants and contractors, and is located approximately 6.5 miles northeast of Washington, D.C.  in Greenbelt, Md.

Citing safety concerns that had come to light after the Columbia space shuttle space shuttle, reusable U.S. space vehicle. Developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), it consists of a winged orbiter, two solid-rocket boosters, and an external tank.  tragedy in February 2003, O'Keefe told the gathering that NASA wasn't going to send any more shuttle missions to upgrade or repair the orbiting observatory. With its 3-decades-old batteries in danger of petering out and its spacecraft-stabilizing gyroscopes vulnerable to failure, the telescope could cease to function as early as 2007. Scientists had hoped to use shuttle missions to maintain it until as late as 2013.

The decision to end Hubble's life prematurely has set off a public furor. From snapshots of ultraviolet auroras shimmering shim·mer  
intr.v. shim·mered, shim·mer·ing, shim·mers
1. To shine with a subdued flickering light. See Synonyms at flash.

 above Jupiter to pictures of exploding stars and images of dozens of the most distant galaxies so far detected, Hubble hasn't only revolutionized astronomy. Around the world, its images have become icons of scientific discovery.

On June 1, O'Keefe announced that NASA is proposing to send robots, rather than astronauts, to repair and upgrade Hubble. Although many astronomers, including Beekwith, say they are heartened by this proposal, they also point out that an unmanned servicing mission has never before been attempted. The scientists are skeptical that even state-of-the art robots can deliver batteries and gyroscopes, let alone carry out current plans to install a new infrared camera and ultraviolet spectrograph.

Asked by Congress to consider the future of the Hubble Space Telescope, a National Academy of Sciences panel came out with a preliminary recommendation on July 14. It urges that NASA not preclude the use of the shuttle for a repair mission while the space agency considers the feasibility of robotic servicing.

"My advice to young astronomers is to treat each night on [any] telescope like it was the last night" says John Huchra John Peter Huchra (born December 23, 1948) is an American astronomer and professor. He is the Vice Provost for Research Policy at Harvard University and a Professor of Astronomy at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.  of Harvard University Harvard University, mainly at Cambridge, Mass., including Harvard College, the oldest American college. Harvard College

Harvard College, originally for men, was founded in 1636 with a grant from the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
. "In this ease, this may be the last years on the Hubble Space Telescope."

"It's definitely a race with the clock," adds John Tonry of the University of Hawaii (body, education) University of Hawaii - A University spread over 10 campuses on 4 islands throughout the state.

See also Aloha, Aloha Net.
 in Honolulu. Which prompts the question, What observations should take priority in Hubble's last few years?

"We're not going to do all the good things that everybody has in mind before the batteries wear out," says Robert Kirshner Robert Kirshner is Clowes Professor of Science in the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics at Harvard University. His notable scientific work centers around the use of Supernovae to measure the expansion of the universe.  of Harvard University. "We're going to have to make some very difficult, unpleasant choices."

DO OR DIE In May, scientists gathered at the Space Telescope Science Institute to discuss priorities. They agreed that they couldn't count on the success of a robotic mission. The astronomers expressed diverse opinions on what problems Hubble should tackle next, but they found a consensus on some issues. "The big question is, Should we dedicate a lot of Hubble time to one or two compelling problems, and the answer at the meeting was 'no," says Beckwith.

Much of the telescope's time is assigned almost a year in advance, but the space telescope director reserves some Hubble time for special projects or on-the-fly follow-up of new discoveries.

Last fall, Beekwith gave away more than 11 days of this discretionary time for astronomers to take the most detailed snapshot yet of the distant universe. As astronomers plumb this goldmine of imagery and spectrographic spec·tro·graph  
1. A spectroscope equipped to photograph or otherwise record spectra.

2. A spectrogram.

 data, known as the Hubble Ultra Deep Field The Hubble Ultra Deep Field, or HUDF, is an image of a small region of space in the constellation Fornax, composited from Hubble Space Telescope data accumulated over a period from September 3 2003 through January 16 2004. , they are asking whether the images in this narrow slice of the universe are representative of the rest of the cosmos.

To find out, Hubble should image at least two other deep fields before its time runs out to more accurately reveal the distribution of the colors, shapes, and clusterings of the first galaxies, says Marijn Franx of Leiden Observatory Leiden Observatory (Sterrewacht Leiden in Dutch) is an astronomical observatory in the city of Leiden in the Netherlands. It was established by Leiden University in 1633, to house the quadrant of Snellius, and is the oldest operating University observatory in the world  in the Netherlands.

Other astronomers at the May meeting urged that Hubble continue its pioneering work in determining the size and atmospheric composition of planets that lie beyond the solar system solar system, the sun and the surrounding planets, natural satellites, dwarf planets, asteroids, meteoroids, and comets that are bound by its gravity. The sun is by far the most massive part of the solar system, containing almost 99.9% of the system's total mass. . By carefully gathering a star's light, Hubble can provide spectrographic signatures of closely orbiting planets that circle it. Astronomers don't have images of those extrasolar planets, so Hubble has provided the only direct data on them. Other telescopes have insufficiently clear vision and lack Hubble's spatial resolution (Data West Research Agency definition: see GIS glossary.) A measure of the accuracy or detail of a graphic display, expressed as dots per inch, pixels per line, lines per millimeter, etc. It is a measure of how fine an image is, usually expressed in dots per inch (dpi). .

Hubble examines extrasolar planets as they periodically pass in front of their stars as seen from Earth--a process known as a transit. At that time, the planets block a small but detectable amount of starlight. A precision measurement of the drop in brightness can indicate the radius of the transiting planet (SN: 12/1/01, p. 346).

An even smaller amount of the starlight filters through the transiting planet's atmosphere, whose constituent atoms and molecules absorb specific wavelengths. By comparing the spectra of starlight taken during and after a transit, astronomers can in principle determine the abundance of a variety of elements and compounds in a planet's atmosphere.

So far, David Charbonneau David Charbonneau is an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He is best known for his work on exoplanets.

In 1999, he led a team that made the first observation of a transiting exoplanet, HD 209458 b.
 of the California Institute of Technology California Institute of Technology, at Pasadena, Calif.; originally for men, became coeducational in 1970; founded 1891 as Throop Polytechnic Institute; called Throop College of Technology, 1913–20.  in Pasadena, CA, Ron Gilliland of the Space Telescope Science Institute, and their colleagues have used Hubble to find the atmospheric constituents of the just one planet (SN: 11/20/99, p. 324). But with two other transiting planets recently announced, and some 20 other searches underway, the orbiting observatory may soon have a bonanza of orbs to study. And that roster may soon go up precipitously. Last February, Hubble searched for transiting planets by surveying 50,000 stars that lie toward the center of the Milky Way Milky Way, the galaxy of which the sun and solar system are a part, seen as a broad band of light arching across the night sky from horizon to horizon; if not blocked by the horizon, it would be seen as a circle around the entire sky. , and astronomers plan to announce the results this summer. "There's time pressure to do the unique things that can only he done with Hubble," Gilliland notes.

SUPER STUDIES At the May meeting, Kirshner proposed that astronomers emphasize two types of projects in Hubble's remaining time. One would be a final set of images or spectra to document changes in a planet, star, or galaxy that Hubble has already examined over a long period of time. The other would focus on making observations for which even a small amount of additional data might have a huge payoff.

Only half jokingly, Kirshner noted that two of his own pet projects fit these criteria perfectly. He and his colleagues have been methodically documenting supernova 1987a ever since sky watchers witnessed its explosion 17 years ago. Astronomers have predicted that an expanding shock wave racing out from this blast will plow into a ring of debris cast off by the star some 30,000 years before it exploded. Hubble has already imaged bright knots within the ring, which represent the first places that the shock wave has reached. Over the next few years, the Years, The

the seven decades of Eleanor Pargiter’s life. [Br. Lit.: Benét, 1109]

See : Time
 entire ring should light up. The spectacle will not only make a striking image, Kirshner says, but it's likely to reveal more about the 1987 explosion and the contents of nearby interstellar space.

Another sort of supernova study using Hubble is yielding a more cosmic perspective. By training Hubble on the most distant type la supernovas known in the universe and measuring their brightness, Kirshner and his colleagues have found evidence for dark energy, a mysterious cosmic push that is causing the universe to rev up its rate of expansion (SN: 5/22/04, p. 330). Searching for additional supernovas may be the best way to determine the basic properties of dark energy, including its strength and density. Even a few more years of Hubble studies could provide vital clues to the nature of dark energy, notes Kirshner.

ALL TOGETHER NOW Weighing in on the priorities debate, Beckwith points to the value of coordinating Hubble's observations with those of other telescopes. Combining Hubble's visible-light images of a patch of the southern sky with pictures taken by X-ray. infrared, and radio telescopes, for example, has provided a rich story line about galaxy evolution and the growth of supermassive black holes.

In another example, Jay Gallagher of the University of Wisconsin-Madison “University of Wisconsin” redirects here. For other uses, see University of Wisconsin (disambiguation).
A public, land-grant institution, UW-Madison offers a wide spectrum of liberal arts studies, professional programs, and student activities.
 and his colleagues recently compared Hubble images of the galaxy M82 with those taken by the WIYN WIYN Wisconsin, Indiana, Yale, NOAO (consortium)
WIYN What Is Your Number?
 Telescope on Kitt Peak in Arizona. M82 is called a starburst galaxy because its core churns out clusters of young stars. The furious rate of star formation in these galaxies, which are close enough to study in depth, resembles the frenzied activity common in the earliest, most distant galaxies in the cosmos, Gallagher and other astronomers contend.

Aside from its star-birthing activity, M82 is note worthy because it shoots out winds of hot gas tens of thousands of light-years long. Gallagher's team set out to look for a connection between these winds and the rate of star birth. The team overlaid the ultrasharp Hubble images, which homed in on tiny details at the center of the galaxy, with the less detailed but broader WIYN images, which show the widely dispersed winds. The team found that the winds are driven by hot gas expelled from the central areas of the galaxy. Gallagher first reported the findings at the May meeting.

Several astronomers noted that when Hubble dies, astronomy will lose its only sharp, ultraviolet eye on the universe. Most ultraviolet light Ultraviolet light
A portion of the light spectrum not visible to the eye. Two bands of the UV spectrum, UVA and UVB, are used to treat psoriasis and other skin diseases.
 can't penetrate Earth's atmosphere to reach ground-based detectors, and only a few other space observatories have any ultraviolet capability. Ultraviolet spectra reveal the abundance of elements in nearby regions of the cosmos, while ultraviolet images record the energetic light from newborn stars in nearby galaxies. There are no plans for an ultraviolet-sensitive space observatory for at least the next 15 years.

Ultraviolet telescopes are less useful for studying distant bodies. That's because ultraviolet light from distant galaxies gets shifted into the near-infrared region of the spectrum as a result of the universe's expansion. Indeed, the proposed space observatory often referred to as Hubble s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope This article or section documents a scheduled or expected spaceflight. Details may change as the launch date approaches or more information becomes available. , will search for the first stars and galaxies by examining the distant universe at infrared wavelengths.

Hubble was originally expected to be around long enough to overlap with the new observatory, peering at some of the same targets as the James Webb, but in visible and ultraviolet light. By the time that telescope is launched, no earlier than 2011, Hubble's last observations could well be history.

NEVER AGAIN--Astronauts perform repairs on the Hubble Space Telescope during a servicing mission 2 years ago. NASA has canceled additional shuttle-borne repair missions to the telescope but is now considering a robotic mission.


HUBBLE BONANZA--The Cat's Eye planetary nebula features shells, jets, and knots of gas generated by a dying star (top). Deepest visible-light and near-infrared image of a patch of the universe (middle). Light from the outburst of a normally faint star called V838 Monocerotis reflects off eddies in a surrounding dust cloud (bottom).

COPYRIGHT 2004 Science Service, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

 Reader Opinion




Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Cowen, Ron
Publication:Science News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 24, 2004
Previous Article:Trail mix: espionage among the bees.
Next Article:Generous players: game theory explores the Golden Rule's place in biology.

Related Articles
Shuttles grounded by two sets of leaks.
A chance to point Hubble.
Light show. (Science Times).
Lucky shot. (Astronomy).
Hubble lakes ultralong look at the cosmos.
One of Hubble's tools fails: observatory loses a sharp ultraviolet eye.
People, not robots: panel favors shuttle mission to Hubble.
Keeping Hubble from being hobbled.
An Acre of Glass: A History and Forecast of the Telescope.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2014 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters