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What is the Hubble Space Telescope

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April 2010 Marks the 20th Anniversary of The Hubble Space Telescope.
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April 2010 Marks 20th Anniversary of Hubble Telescope Launch - What Comes Next?

Orbiting beyond our atmosphere, in the cosmos nearly 400 miles above our tiny blue planet, is an extraordinary piece of scientific equipment involved in one of the most remarkable explorations of astronomy since the days of Galileo’s first discoveries. Telescopes have long provided a glimpse of the universe to whet our imaginations. The Hubble Space Telescope takes leaps and bounds beyond what most of us think when we say "telescope."

What is the Hubble Space Telescope? Many star gazers are familiar with the dim light of a “moving star" that appears along the horizon a few hours before sunrise or after sunset. Yes, the Hubble can actually be viewed from earth, and detailed charts regarding the position of the Hubble are publicly available at many Web sites.

However, the Hubble Space Telescope is much, much more than just a dim glow in the evening sky, and the question of what is the Hubble Space Telescope requires a complex answer. The Hubble Space Telescope is the largest telescope ever constructed, and the first observatory to be set in orbit beyond Earth’s atmosphere. 

What is the Hubble Space Telescope? It represents one of the greatest human accomplishments in the field of astronomy, fulfilling its mission of providing clear, detailed images of the most distant corners of the universe, and aiding scientists in determining the rate of expansion of the universe. 

What is the Hubble Space Telescope rate of speed? The Hubble orbits our planet once every 97 minutes, at an approximate rate of five miles per second.

How is the Hubble controlled? The United States space agency and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), operate the Hubble Space Telescope in cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA). The Hubble is commanded and manipulated by radio signals relayed from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. 

The concept for a space telescope was first conceived in the 1940’s by astronomer Lyman Spitzer, who recognized that the disadvantage of grounded telescopes was that images of space were distorted by the earth’s atmosphere. At the time, Spitzer’s theories about rocketing a telescope into space seemed outrageous and impossible. It wasn’t until 1970 that NASA initiated the quest for funding for the Hubble Space Telescope, and established two committees to govern the project – an engineering committee, and a scientific committee. 

The original launch date for the Hubble was scheduled for 1983. However, the launch was delayed by financial constraints, technical problems and setbacks such as the Challenger disaster. It wasn’t until April of 1990 that the telescope was launched, and named after a paramount astronomer named Edwin P. Hubble (1889-1953) credited with developing the Big Bang theory. 

Unfortunately, soon after launching the Hubble, scientists realized that the primary mirror of the telescope had been ground incorrectly, thus impairing the magnification capabilities of the device.  An extraordinary servicing mission took place in 1993. During this initial servicing mission astronauts installed new precision optics and state-of-the-art instrumentation.

Additional servicing missions took place in 1997, 1999 and 2002. A final servicing mission was scheduled for 2004; however NASA elected to delay that mission after all seven crew members of the Space Shuttle Columbia were killed when Columbia exploded during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. It wasn’t until May 11th of 2009 that NASA launched that final servicing mission for the Hubble Space Telescope. 

Today, youngsters and students seeking answers to the question “what is the Hubble Space Telescope?” can visit the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.  This museum is now home to two key instruments from the telescope that were recovered during the final 2009 servicing mission carried out by the space shuttle Atlantis.

April 2010 marks the 20th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope.  Many Hubble Space Telescope books, videos, and compilations of commemorative materials celebrating Hubble’s mission to capture thousands of spectacular images of the cosmos will be available to the public.

What is the future of the Hubble Space Telescope? Scientists are working to extend the life of the Hubble Space Telescope until 2013. The planning, construction and engineering of Hubble’s successor is already well under way. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a new infrared-optimized space telescope, the size of a tennis court, is scheduled to be launched in the year 2014.

What will become of the Hubble Space Telescope? Currently, NASA officials cannot justify a mission that risks human life to retrieve the shuttle. This amazing device may ultimately remain in space forever. Regardless, the Hubble Space Telescope has become a national and international treasure, enabling astronomers to glimpse farther and deeper into the mysteries of the universe.  

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