The past thirty years have revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos. Astronomers have learned that the universe is not only expanding but also accelerating. They’ve found proof that gigantic black holes are at the centers of most galaxies. They’ve peered inside nebulas where stars are born, and they’ve glimpsed the strange shapes of dying stars. They’ve even explored the chemical composition of planets outside of our solar system.
Each of these discoveries has come thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope. Astronomers had long dreamed of being able to take a good look into space without the distorting effects of earth’s atmosphere. They began to make the dream of an orbiting observatory a reality in 1969. The project started as the “Large Space Telescope,” and was eventually named after Edwin Hubble, the most eminent U.S. astronomer of the twentieth century.
Hubble was launched in 1990, equipped with cameras and spectrographs that could see individual light wavelengths. Since its launch, five missions have repaired and perfected the telescope. In the course of its ninety-seven-minute loops around the earth, Hubble has given us mesmerizing images of the butterfly nebula, the tadpole galaxy, the “pillars of creation” in the eagle nebula, and the “northern lights” of Jupiter.
To astronomers, it’s always been about more than pretty pictures. In over 163,000 trips around the planet, Hubble has accumulated over 150 terabytes of new data, and scientists have used that treasure trove to publish over 15,000 papers. No wonder the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson calls Hubble “the most productive scientific instrument of all time.”