In a stunning confluence of events, three separate milestones have been attained almost simultaneously in this remarkable International Year of Astronomy: the crew of the space shuttle Atlantis has linked with the venerable Hubble Space Telescope to repair, replace or upgrade a number of its vital systems, to extend its lifetime and radically improve its performance; the Kepler spacecraft has begun its search for earth-like worlds in distant solar systems; and the amazing new European duo of Planck and Herschel have been jointly launched on their respective missions.
The Hubble Space Telescope celebrated its 19th anniversary last month. Launched on April 24, 1990 aboard the Discovery space shuttle, Hubble was the largest and most sensitive optical telescope to operate in space. Despite suffering from a flawed mirror which initially created an embarrassing focusing problem, it was soon repaired, and has revolutionized our conceptions of the universe, returning myriad almost miraculous images of galaxies, nebulae, stars, and other astronomical phenomena previously beyond our ken.
The Hubble Heritage Information Center at the Space Telescope Science Institute offers an extensive gallery of stunning images taken by Hubble over the years. An even more immense collection of hundreds upon hundreds of nearly overwhelming Hubble images can be found in NASA’s Hubblesite Gallery at NASA’s official website for the space telescope.
Then, if you’d like to learn a bit more, you might check out Ten Things You Don’t Know About Hubble at Discover Magazine’s Bad Astronomy blog. And you can track all the details of the current fifth Hubble servicing mission here.
Finally, to put it all into context, New Scientist has a gallery of The Most Important Telescopes in History from Galileo through Swift.
What you won’t find in that review of historical telescopes are the three newest and very exciting missions, Kepler, Planck and Herschel.
For the next three and half years, Kepler will be staring intensely at a patch of sky forming 100 square degrees of the Milky Way galaxy in the direction of the constellations Cygnus and Lyra. Its purpose is to discover and explore the nature and structure of planetary systems surrounding a large number of relatively nearby stars in this sector. You can find out much more about the Kepler mission by consulting the official Kepler mission website, and by looking at NASA’s Kepler pages.
Both the Planck and Herschel missions are well-summarized in the brief article ”Two Spacecraft Set to Probe the Early Universe’s Mysteries” in Scientific American.
The Planck spacecraft is designed to observe and image the Cosmic Background Radiation with unprecedented accuracy and resolution. You can find a quick overview of its purpose and capabilities in this New Scientist article or in greater detail at the European Space Agency’s Planck home page, as well as here and here.
The Herschel Space Observatory is a space-based telescope that will view the far-infrared and submillimeter portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. For Herschel, the European Space Agency also offers a website. You can also find additional useful information at NASA’s Herschel Science Center and at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Herschel page.
Hubble Update (May 20):
“We got everything we asked for, we’re going to have a great mission for years to come.” See Second Hubble Revolution Starts Today at space.com.