Deep space photography explores the craftsmanship of the cosmos. Where do we draw the dividing line between art and science?
On April 24, 1990, the Discovery Shuttle mission STS-31 launched the Hubble Space Telescope into a low orbit around the Earth, the result of decades of planning, research, funding and construction. It was not the first telescope in space, but, twenty-five years later, it remains among the most advanced and most versatile. Its position grants it the ability to observe infrared and ultraviolet light, both of which are filtered out by Earth’s protective atmosphere, and it does not have to contend with atmospheric turbulence, the force that makes the stars appear to twinkle.
The early days of the Hubble began with disappointment and embarrassment. The first images received were not of the expected quality. A fault in the main mirror, which had not been ground correctly, created blurring. NASA, already under the gun for spending money on “Buck Rogers stuff” was a public laughing stock. The fault was fixed three years later by installing corrective lenses. The result has been pure magic. Please click on the attribution links for a wealth of information on each image.
For the past twenty-two years, images of a quality previously unimaginable have been taken of distant nebulae, planets and galaxies, looking far into space and time. Some of these cosmic features are billions of light years away. By the time the light from the stars reaches the Hubble, they may no longer be shining. Astronomer Edwin Powell Hubble was one of the first to espouse the the idea that the universe is expanding. His namesake has proven him correct.
The high resolution images taken by the Hubble feature little to no background light, and are some of the most detailed images from outer space. This well placed telescope has been able to turn its gaze to many places and produce pictures of heavenly bodies far too dim and distant to be observed from ground based telescopes. What it hasn’t been as successful with is taking shots of planets, which are much smaller and rely on stars for luminescence. Such work is more suited to smaller, portable devices that can get the correct angle and light on the subject. As I write this, the New Horizons Spacecraft, on its journey to Pluto, is beginning to transmit “better than Hubble” enhanced images of the dwarf planet. You can read more about that here. Jupiter, which is more than twice as massive as all of the planets in our solar system combined, has proved the easiest and most impressive planet to photograph from the large telescope.
The Hubble is the only telescope designed to be serviced by astronauts, specifically astronauts traveling in Space Shuttles. The final servicing mission occurred in 2009, and the subsequent retirement of the Shuttles means that there is no vehicle capable of performing service to the large telescope, nor is there any means to bring it back to Earth when it fails. This beautiful window to the stars is closing. It is anticipated that the Hubble may remain in operation through 2020. If allowed to take its natural course, the Hubble is predicted to fall from orbit and re-enter the atmosphere sometime between 2030 and 2040.
Hubble has shown us the distant past, but will not be a part of the near future. It will be succeeded by the James Webb Telescope, slated for launch in 2018.
The images the Hubble has collected have changed and reshaped our knowledge and perception of outer space, revealing both order and chaos. They have enlarged our sense of wonder, simultaneously giving us pride in human achievement and humility in our extreme provinciality and insignificance.