Hubble Trouble—How Did It Turn Out?
‘What Hubble trouble?’ you might ask. The HST (Hubble Space Telescope) trouble is what we are talking about—the costly (over $1.6 billion) sophisticated eye on the universe that suddenly revealed that it had flawed vision back in 1990.
THE Hubble Space Telescope is “probably the most sophisticated scientific satellite ever built,” says Dr. R. W. Smith of The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, in The International Encyclopedia of Astronomy.a “The largest, most complex, and most powerful observatory ever deployed in space” is how Eric Chaisson describes it in his book The Hubble Wars. He also states in Astronomy magazine: “The four million lines of computer code needed to command and control it daily—one of the largest codes in the civilian world—is testimony to Hubble’s high degree of complexity.” This observatory is orbiting at a height of some 380 miles [615 km] above the earth and thus well clear of the earth’s light-distorting atmosphere.
Prior to the launch, Dr. Smith stated that “the excellence of its images will . . . be fixed only by the laws of optics, the quality of its mirrors, and how accurately and steadily the HST can be directed toward its targets.” Little did he realize then how significant his words would turn out to be!
Launch—Elation and Disappointment
The big launch day came in April 1990. The HST was sent into orbit on the shuttle Discovery. The flight-control engineers were delighted with the results. John Noble Wilford reported in The New York Times that the engineering data “showed that the telescope had survived the launching undamaged and seemed ready to begin a mission of cosmic exploration that could last more than 15 years.” He added that it was “expected to observe distant stars and galaxies with a clarity 10 times that ever before achieved.” A headline in Time magazine optimistically announced “New Window on the Universe” and added: “With an unclouded view of the most distant stars, the sharp-eyed Hubble telescope will be able to look far back into time.” The excitement mounted as the astronomers and designers waited for the first images to return to earth. What actually happened?
It turned out that, as the saying goes, the chickens were being counted before they had even hatched! The first images began to arrive in May 1990. Instead of the supersharp images that had been expected, blurred light was what the anxious astronomers saw. Eric Chaisson wrote: “These observations bolstered the truly dreadful notion that the orbiting observatory was suffering from a major optical flaw.” The telescope had an unexpected flaw—a minuscule error in one of the two reflecting mirrors! The error was far less than the width of a human hair, but that was enough to blur the vision. It was a huge disappointment.
Who Slipped Up?
What led to Hubble’s costly problems? Eric Chaisson, who worked on the Hubble project, lists many causes in his book The Hubble Wars. He says: “The glaring hardware faults on Hubble derive from a case of engineering myopia, a clear and steady failure to heed the bigger picture. For example: telescope optics machined improperly and tested inadequately by overconfident engineers, with no meaningful technical or scientific input from outside the secretive contractor . . . [and] the incorporation into Hubble of used goods, such as decades-old gyroscopes [gyros that had been tested for some 70,000 hours before use in the telescope—‘tested to death,’ as one engineer stated] and memory boards meant for antique space vehicles.”
When the Hubble’s 94.5-inch [2.4 m] main mirror was finished, it was supposed to be given a final test. According to The New York Times, though, these plans were abandoned because of time limits and financial considerations. The late Dr. Roderic Scott, then chief scientist for the optical research company that made the mirror, called for more tests. His warnings were ignored. Thus, the HST in outer space was only able to transmit deficient images.
Chaisson’s opinion was: “Perhaps the spacecraft and its myriad onboard parts [including over 400,000 parts and 26,000 miles [42,000 km] of wiring] and vast ground-support functions are too complicated for our relatively neophyte technological civilization. When the descendants of Noah tried to build in the ancient city of Babel a tower so high that it would reach the heavens, the Book of Genesis tells us that God punished them for their audacity. Perhaps a much less complex space telescope—a more efficient, evolutionary vehicle—would have been met with a less omnipotent rebuke.” Chaisson went on to say: “The widespread notion that the scientific method is unbiased and objective, that scientists are and always have been lacking in human emotion in the course of their work, is a farce. Today’s science endeavor is as value-laden as most things in life.” According to Chaisson, ambition and jealousy have been factors in Hubble’s distress.
Hopes Were Dashed
A review of some of the media headlines gives a picture of the dramatic events that surrounded the saga of the Hubble trouble. “Shuttle Soars 381 Miles [615 km] High, With Telescope and a Dream,” said one newspaper. Scientific American stated: “Hubble’s Legacy—The Space Telescope Launches a New Era in Astronomy.” In July 1990, Time had to adjust its appraisal, saying: “Cloudy Vistas for Big Science—NASA’s [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] Shuttle Hopes Spring a Leak, and Hubble Has Eye Trouble.” Science magazine explained the problem in more objective language: “Astronomers Survey Hubble Damage—Seldom Has So Tiny an Error Caused So Vast a Turmoil—But in a $1.6-Billion Telescope, Micrometers Loom Large.” The same magazine reported in December 1990: “Hubble Hubris: A Case of ‘Certified’ Blindness.” It stated: “The Hubble Space Telescope’s devastating optical flaw was the result of sloppiness all around, concludes the final report of NASA’s official investigation panel.”
All was not lost, however. In March 1992, Smithsonian magazine reported: “Stunning Images From an Ailing Space Telescope.” It stated: “While many of its functions remain seriously impaired, the telescope is nonetheless deluging astronomers with valuable data. . . . It has produced surprises, such as globular star clusters (traditionally considered among the oldest structures in the Universe) in the bloom of youth; it has probed the heart of a distant galaxy to find confirmation for the theory that a star-devouring black hole lies at that galaxy’s center.”b
“NASA’s Do-or-Die Mission”
Then, in November 1993, came the headline in Science News that scientists and astronomers had awaited: “The Big Fix—NASA Attempts to Repair the Hubble Space Telescope.” According to New Scientist, it involved “the most ambitious repair mission in the history of space flight.” The team of seven astronauts would have to recover the HST and repair it in their cargo bay out there in space. It was called “NASA’s Do-or-Die Mission” and a “Rendezvous With Destiny.” Was it a success?
Using a basketball expression, flight director Milt Heflin told Newsweek: ‘We slam-dunked this thing.’ The astronautic ophthalmologists had pulled off a scientific coup—in five space walks, they had fixed the optics of the HST and had installed a new camera as large as a piano! It was three years before they could get out there to replace the defective elements and install corrective ones. But it was an expensive visit to the eye doctor. According to one source, the repair operation to fix the lens cost $263 million!
The drama reached its climax in January 1994 with headlines such as “The Hubble Telescope Is No Longer Myopic” and “Hubble Finally Gets a Heavenly View.” Astronomy magazine announced: “Hubble—Better Than New.” It reported the reactions of astronomers at the Space Telescope Science Institute when the first images came in: “Absolutely incredible.” “The first images sent shivers down our spines.” “Hubble is fixed beyond our wildest expectations,” exulted Dr. Edward J. Weiler, the project’s chief scientist.
What Are the Benefits?
Correcting the optics soon paid off. In June 1994, Time reported that the HST had discovered hard evidence to support the existence of black holes. NASA announced that it had discovered a “disk-shaped cloud of gas rotating at a dizzying 1.2 million miles an hour [1.9 million km/hr].” It is about 50 million light-years away and at the center of the galaxy M87. It is said to have the mass of from two billion to three billion stars the size of our sun but compressed into a space the size of our solar system! Scientists calculate that the gas disk has a temperature of 18,000 degrees Fahrenheit [10,000°C.]. The only present explanation for this phenomenon is the incredible force of gravity being exerted by a monster black hole around which the disk is whirling.
Hubble also gave excellent pictures of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 as it headed on its self-destructive course toward Jupiter, where it disintegrated in July 1994. The pictures that HST is sending back of galaxies are so sharp that one scientist said of the repair job: “A small change for a mirror, a giant leap for astronomy.” Now, according to Scientific American, “Hubble has a resolution of at least 10 times better than that of any ground-based instrument, so it can see clearly throughout a volume of space 1,000 times larger [than other telescopes].”
Hubble is making the theorists revise some of their ideas about the age of the universe. In fact, they have come up with a paradox as matters are presently understood. The most recent evidence supplied by the HST provides, according to New York Times science writer Wilford, “strong evidence that the universe may be much younger than scientists previously estimated. It may be no more than 8 billion years old,” as compared to previous estimates of up to 20 billion years. The problem is that “some stars are reliably estimated to be 16 billion years old.” Little wonder that, as he says, “the universe seems to keep throwing the cosmologists nasty curves, exposing the woeful limitations of their knowledge.” He adds: “Those who take on the universe as a field of study must accept the likelihood that for all their brilliance and ingenuity, many of the ultimate answers will remain beyond their grasp.”
Man must learn the humility that Job was taught when Jehovah asked him out of the windstorm: “Can you fasten the harness of the Pleiades, or untie Orion’s bands? Can you guide the morning star season by season and show the Bear and its cubs which way to go? Have you grasped the celestial laws?”—Job 38:31-33, The Jerusalem Bible.
What of the Future?
The Hubble telescope promises greater revelations for the immediate future. One astronomer wrote: “With the Hubble Space Telescope, we’ll see the shapes of many galaxies around the vicinity of quasars [quasi-stellar radio sources, the most luminous objects in the universe].” As to understanding the origin of galaxies, Richard Ellis of the University of Cambridge, England, says: “We’re about to enter a very exciting time.”
Human curiosity will continue to spur the search for knowledge of the universe, its beginnings, and its purpose. Such knowledge should awaken in our hearts reverence for the Creator of the vast universe, Jehovah God, who said: “Raise your eyes high up and see. Who has created these things? It is the One who is bringing forth the army of them even by number, all of whom he calls even by name. Due to the abundance of dynamic energy, he also being vigorous in power, not one of them is missing.”—Isaiah 40:26; Psalm 147:4.
a Why is it called the Hubble telescope? It is named after the famous American astronomer Edwin Powell Hubble (1889-1953), who gave scientists a greater insight into what are now known as galaxies. What does it look like? The flying telescope is about the size of a railroad tank car or a four-story tower, being about 44 feet [13 m] long and 14 feet [4 m] in diameter, and it weighed just over 12 tons at launch.
b Black holes are understood to be regions of space into which a star or stars have collapsed and “where gravitational forces become so intense that they prevent the escape even of particles moving with the velocity of light [186,000 miles per second [300,000 km/sec]].” Thus, “no light, matter or signal of any kind can escape.”—The International Encyclopedia of Astronomy.
[Diagram/Picture on page 16, 17]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
A: Primary mirror
B: Secondary mirror
C: Four gyroscopes, used to aim the telescope, are replaced
D: Damaged solar panel is replaced
E: New wide-field/planetary camera installed
F: The Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement compensates for flawed mirror
G: Electronics for positioning solar panels replaced
[Picture on page 16]
Top left: HST view of galaxy M100 before repair work
[Picture on page 17]
Top center: Installing the new planetary camera
[Picture on page 17]
Top right: HST view of galaxy M100 after repair work
[Picture Credit Line on page 15]