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The Hubble Space Telescope has brought us some of the most breathtaking images of space and some of the most astounding research about the universe.
This spring, the Space Telescope Science Institute, the branch of NASA that is in charge of the Hubble, is celebrating the telescope’s 24th year in orbit.
Hubble was built for 20 years of work, but with no more shuttle missions for repairs and delays in the launch date of its successor — the James Webb Space Telescope — what will happen to our knowledge of space?
Dr. Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss the future and beauty of space exploration.
Mountain also discusses the best place he’s ever seen stars with the naked eye, and whether he thinks we’ll discover life elsewhere in the universe.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. The Hubble Space Telescope has brought us some of the most breathtaking images of space and also some of the most astounding research about the universe, and it is now celebrating its 24th year in orbit. Matt Mountain is director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, which is in charge of Hubble, and he's with us now. Matt, first just describe the Hubble for us.
MATT MOUNTAIN: Well basically it's a telescope. So it's a big telescope, and if you could see it, and only astronauts have now seen it, it looks like a big cylinder, which is roughly the size of a school bus with big solar cells. And it travels at 17,000 mile an hour 300 miles above our head, and it circles the Earth every 97 minutes. And so it looks out into the universe above the atmosphere then transmits that data down to Earth.
And then it gets processed and turned into the images you see here at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
HOBSON: And it was supposed to finish up its mission, what, four years ago, but it hasn't. It's kept going and could go for another six.
MOUNTAIN: Hubble was always designed to be serviced, which was fairly unique for a NASA mission, and it was just as well because when they first launched it, of course the mirror was flawed, and everybody knows that, and astronauts were able to go up and fit corrective optics. And astronauts have now been up five times to service it. The last time was in May of 2009, but of course we don't have a shuttle anymore, and so now we are at the - it depends on how cosmic rays will affect our instruments. It depends if anything will hit the Hubble.
So now we're projecting that at least everything on the Hubble should last at least 2020, but at any moment something could in principle go wrong because it's in space.
HOBSON: Well, what would you say is the most important thing that the Hubble has discovered for us in its 24 years in orbit?
MOUNTAIN: The most important thing isn't one thing. It's just the enormity of everything that it's discovered. I mean, it's changed textbooks. So it's the fact that it can see comets right out to the first galaxies. It actually confirmed the discovery of this weird stuff called dark energy, which led to the Nobel Prize given to one of my staff scientists at Space Telescope, Dr. Adam Riess, who is also a professor.
So it's very hard now to pick on one thing. I think that the most unifying thing is once the Hubble has seen it, everybody agrees it's true. So it's the truth machine, I think, which makes Hubble the greatest telescope in history.
HOBSON: Well, how much of our understanding of the universe is based on what the Hubble has shown us?
MOUNTAIN: If you think before they launched the Hubble, which was 24 years ago, we didn't know how old the universe was to factors of two, and astronomers used to have fist fights over such things. We had never seen planets. We didn't think black holes existed. We had no idea that galaxies evolved over time. And we had no clue about dark energy. All of that's changed.
You look back now, you now know that the universe is 13.7 billion years old, you know, and we know that to roughly three or four percent. So it's no longer something you fight about. Astronomers can always find things to fight about even at that level. We know planets are everywhere, and we know what's on those planets. We've seen water vapor, we've seen carbon, we've seen methane. We've seen black holes in the center of every single galaxy that we ever looked at.
So it's just completely transformed the way we look at the universe, and we take it now for granted. We don't ask was there a big bang, we ask how long ago was it. We don't ask is there dark energy or dark matter, we ask what it is.
HOBSON: One of the things that I have always heard about NASA is that because things take so long to develop that you go from one president to the next, of the United States that is, who changes their idea of what they want the space program to do, and they cut funding for one thing, they put funding into something else, and you now end up in a situation where we don't, as you say, have a shuttle to get astronauts up into space.
We do have the Hubble. How did that happen? How did we get this big project that now has lasted 24 years?
MOUNTAIN: You know, that's a really good question, and it's a real object lesson on how powerful and popular science can be if you engage a broad population. I mean, Hubble is really exciting. It delivers really cool images and very interesting images, allows us to see things we've never seen before. The key was to ensure that we shared what we did with everybody at large.
I mean, Hubble came of age at exactly the same time as the Internet came of age, and so those early engineers and scientists exploited the Internet to make sure all our images, everybody can get. I mean, every image we've ever taken is on our website, and you can have it for free. So not just - not only is it just that science benefits, but the public at large benefits.
Also we have education programs based on Hubble. So we give it a sort of much broader base, and I think science overall has always in the U.S. enjoyed considerable bipartisan support, and it's the one thing everybody agrees on NASA does really well. You don't have to argue about rockets or what kind of rockets. Everybody says well, we have a telescope like the Hubble; it's fantastic.
And I think that's the power of space science in missions like the Hubble. Everybody agrees this is something NASA does well.
HOBSON: Well, and it's something that NASA has done consistently and has consistently provided returns for the rest of us to see. Do you think that missions like the Hubble or like the Voyager for that matter, that are just simply taking pictures and gathering data, are a better investment for NASA than sending people into space?
MOUNTAIN: Well, I'm a scientist and astrophysicist, and so I do think NASA does space science incredibly well. But let's remember that when NASA was first set up, and they went to the moon, there was this very famous lawyer who took over NASA called Jim Webb or James Webb, who decided that NASA should spend some of its budget on doing science because it brought in a broad community of scientists.
Now if you think about what made Hubble so powerful, it wasn't just it's a great telescope with great cameras. It's the fact that astronauts could go back to it. So we needed the shuttle program. So it was this partnership between science and the human space flight program that's made Hubble so powerful.
So I think, you know, the one way to give a really robust program is to rebuild that partnership, where science and the human space flight program and all the rockets all work together to a common goal. That seems to be a remarkably successful model for Hubble.
HOBSON: How much more advanced will the James Webb Space Telescope be than Hubble?
MOUNTAIN: It's a completely different telescope. I mean first of all, it only weighs half as much as the Hubble, roughly, and it has a telescope which is three times the diameter. Now of course to pack it in to a rocket, we've had to fold it up, and it'll have to go way beyond the moon, to an orbit called the Lagrange Point 2, which is a million miles from here, and have to unfold. And of course it has very advanced detector systems and spectrometers, but most importantly it will be cooled down to roughly minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit to look at the infrared universe.
So it looks very different from the Hubble. It is definitely not your mother's Hubble.
HOBSON: OK, well before I let you go, I want to ask you what your favorite images from Hubble are.
MOUNTAIN: Yeah, that's a question I get asked a lot, but I think I'd have to pick - there are going to be two. The most profound from my perspective is something called the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field, which is when Hubble actually stared for 11 days at a completely blank piece of the sky, no bigger than if you look through a drinking straw, that size of area, and saw 11,000 galaxies.
And the second image is something we took recently called the Horsehead Nebula. What we did was use our new infrared camera, and we see this beautiful, ephemeral structure, which in fact we can look at in three dimensions, where stars are actually being born.
HOBSON: Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, which is the home of Hubble. And we will link you to those photos he just mentioned at hereandnow.org. Matt, thanks so much.
MOUNTAIN: Thank you very much.
HOBSON: And when you go to hereandnow.org, you can also find out his favorite stargazing spot in the country, which you probably won't be able to drive to. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.