Following its launch on April 24, 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) got off to a shaky start. But after the 1993 repair mission and four more house calls by Space Shuttle astronauts, the Hubble went on to observe more than 30,000 celestial targets and amass more than half a million pictures of our universe.
The Hubble was designed to be deployed, captured, and serviced by Space Shuttles, and now that the Shuttle program has ended, it’s just a matter of time before the Hubble goes dark. That time is sooner than we realize.
The HST is only expected to remain operational until some time next year, with scientists squeezing out every last possible photograph.
In the meantime, NASA is working on the Hubble’s replacement, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), scheduled to launch in 2018. Technology has moved forward since the launch of the Hubble in 1990, and the new $5 billion telescope will carry technology that is much more sophisticated. Slated to launch in 2014, JWST will orbit much higher than the Hubble (1 million miles from the Earth’s surface verses 347 miles) and will use infrared technology to peer much deeper into our universe.
The original plan was to recapture the dying Hubble with a Space Shuttle and house it in the Smithsonian as a national treasure. However, without the Shuttle program, there is no way to bring it safely back to Earth.
Hubble could remain in a decaying orbit until sometime between 2019 and 2032 but it weighs 24,500 pounds (as much as two full-grown elephants) and is as long as a large school bus. If it were to decay and then descend on its own, parts of the Hubble’s main mirror and support structure will most likely survive. Guess we can’t have that big mirror landing in downtown Chicago during rush hour.
The last visit to the Hubble by mankind will be by a robotic spacecraft that will attach itself to the telescope and guide it safely back to Earth in a fiery reentry. Until then, let’s enjoy it while we can, and keep our fingers crossed that the Energizer Bunny keeps it going and going and going…