Bad Astronomy

Hubble’s Anniversary

Today, as I write this, it’s the 15th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery (it was actually deployed from the Shuttle a day later; you can see a fun video of it here). If you haven’t seen them already, Hubble released two new images to celebrate: one of the Eagle Nebula, and the other of Whirlpool Galaxy.

M16 and M51
One of the towers of gas and dust in the Eagle Nebula (top), and the spiral galaxy M51 (bottom).

Photo by NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team STScI/AURA) & NASA, ESA, S. Beckwith (STScI), and The Hubble Heritage Team STScI/AURA)

I was going to write a brief history of Hubble, but you know what? You can find that anywhere. So I’m gonna indulge myself (it’s my blog, after all) and talk a little about my own involvement.

In the spring of 1990, I was at the University of Virginia, and I had just finished my Masters degree. I was looking for a PhD project, and having no luck. Most faculty had no money, or no project (one had a fantastic project observing variable stars that was incredibly cool, but she had no funding at the time). I scoured all the relevant departments at UVa, but there was literally nothing I could find.

I had actually written and printed what amounted to a resignation letter from grad school, which I was prepared to hand to the department chair, Roger Chevalier. But when I told him my tale of woe, he said “Well, I do have this one thing coming up…” I asked him what it was, and he said it was observing supernovae (exploding stars) with Hubble. I was fascinated by supernovae, and Hubble was due to launch in a few months, and was the Great Hope of Astronomy at that time. So duh: I said YES.

I still have that resignation letter.

I started reading on the project: it was a massive program to observe supernovae, involving many hundreds of hours total of observing time and a dozen professional astronomers across the globe. I was very eager to get involved, get data, gets started!

I was in for a shock, when it was found that the telescope wouldn’t properly focus (shortly thereafter I got a little salt in the wound: the variable star project I turned down received wheelbarrows full of funding. Figures). But Hubble did return two images of a ring of gas surrounding the supernova SN1987A, and they were good enough for me to start working. In all honesty, I had very little idea of what I was doing; it was a (very severe) learning process. But over time I got a grasp of it, and as new images from Hubble came in, I eagerly incorporated them into my work. I won’t go into details here, but you can read about that here and here.

I defended my PhD in ‘94, and went on to eventually work on the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, or STIS, a camera on Hubble. It took many grand and gorgeous images of astronomical objects, and I was privileged to work on many of them, processing and calibrating the images, and sometimes working on the scientific analysis (even publishing one project).

I left that project after nearly five years, to pursue a career in public outreach in California. I still miss the work sometimes, and got a jolt when STIS died on August 3, 2004.

But I still look back very fondly on all the fun, work, sweat, pain, torture and sheer joy of working on the world’s premier telescope. I have many other stories about Hubble, including some of the work I did, in the Bitesize Astronomy section of the main website. You may find some of them amusing (especially this one, a personal favorite).

On this, the 15th year of its pushing back the boundaries of our knowledge, let’s hope that it continues for years to come. The decision to de-orbit Hubble is not final, and Mike Griffin, the new head of NASA, has said he wants to look into a Shuttle mission to repair the ailing observatory (it has failing gyros, which stabilize its pointing, and two new cameras are sitting on the ground waiting to be installed).

I certainly hope it continues on, and provides not just the public with the thrill of its spectacular images, but also gives scientists, both young and old, a chance to expand our knowledge of the Universe. For me, that’s what this is all about.