Hubble Space Telescope

Unlocking an Unprecedented Astronomical Treasure Trove

Inducted in 2001

The best engineers and scientists are undaunted in the face of the most futuristic goals. But how does one even begin to tackle a job description that culminates in the directive “Chart the evolution of the universe”? The teams that since the 1960s have developed that near-miracle of astronomy, the Hubble Space Telescope, can answer that question.

The telescope is named for Edwin P. Hubble (1889 – 1953), who confirmed the “expanding” universe, laying the foundation for the Big Bang theory. The man with the dream, however, was Lyman Spitzer Jr., an astrophysicist who in 1946 proposed a space-based observatory unhindered by Earth’s atmospheric distortion. Dr. Spitzer was instrumental in designing the Hubble, and throughout the 1960s and 1970s was an ardent and effective lobbyist for the project. He would make important astronomical observations with the telescope that was his brainchild, devoting much time — right up to his death in 1997 — to analysis of Hubble data.

The telescope’s rate of discovery is unprecedented. With five to ten years’ worth of observations yet anticipated, the Hubble Space Telescope has already studied 13,670 astronomical objects; made 271,000 individual observations; and returned 3.5 terabytes of information, archived on optical disks in a treasure trove for coming generations of scientists. Some 2,800 scientific papers have resulted from the work of this telescope. The first Hubble image was returned May 20, 1990 (star cluster NGC 3532). It and subsequent images were shared with the world via an also-unprecedented mix of Internet, television, and newspaper. Each day the Hubble Space Telescope transmits enough data to fill 10,000 standard computer diskettes.

If Dr. Spitzer was the man behind the Hubble, Huntsville’s Marshall Space Flight Center was certainly the facility behind the observatory’s success. Design concepts that the center’s engineers and scientists provided were so excellent that Marshall was chosen to lead the design, fabrication, prelaunch verification, and in-orbit operational verification. NASA and its collaborator in the project, the European Space Agency, brought together engineers, scientists, contractors, and institutions from across the globe, all under the direction of the
pioneers at Marshall.

Virtually every major Hubble subsystem required advancement of the state of the art in hardware/software to fulfill the stated mission requirements. Many of the resulting technologies remain unique, and a decade following deployment by Space Shuttle Discovery in an orbit 380 miles distant, the Hubble remains the most sophisticated astronomical observatory in existence. It was designed for a mission life of 15 years, with in-orbit servicing and a plan to incorporate new science instruments over time. Three such instruments have thus far been successfully exchanged in orbit. Additionally, the solar-powered Hubble is the world’s most serviceable spacecraft, replacement of science instruments and flight-critical components providently included in Marshall’s system designs.

Hubble’s two mirrors were finished to a precision that did not deviate from a perfect shape by more than 1/1,000,000’s of an inch. Its pointing capability is an extraordinary 0.01 arcseconds. Its orbit control system is so steady that the telescope can lock onto a target without deviating more than 7/1000’s of an arcsecond (the width of a human hair seen from a distance of one mile). The magnitude of its precision allowed Hubble to begin making major discoveries even before a flaw in its primary mirror was repaired in a 1993 servicing mission.

Arthur G. Stephenson, director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, is accepting the honor of induction in the Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame, on behalf of all involved in the success of the Hubble Space Telescope. To further explore the development of the telescope and to view images it has produced, visit HubbleSite on the Internet. Or simply try a post office, where some of the Hubble’s most striking and colorful images are now to be found reproduced on postage stamps.

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