As Hubble Celebrates Its 32nd Year in Space, Here Are Its Greatest Achievements

32 years on, and scientists are still using the Hubble telescope to uncover the mysteries of the universe.
hubble space telescope nasa

NASA celebrates the 32nd anniversary of when the Hubble telescope was first launched into space.  This amazing space telescope is still going strong after all these years, and currently, there is no set date for its retirement. Although its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, was launched on December 25th, 2021, NASA still plans to use the Hubble for as long as possible.

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Hubble Space Telescope at the moment of release by NASA

Hubble showed us we are not the only galaxy in the universe

NASA uses the opportunity of Hubble’s 32nd anniversary to bring attention to the Hickson Compact Group 40

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Hickson Compact Group 40 by NASA

The Hickson Compact Group 40 are a group of galaxies that Hubble has been observing.  These galaxies were considered unusually close to each other at the point of time Hubble received images of them (bear in mind that observing space is looking back into the past), and at some point, scientists expect all these galaxies will collide together to form a giant galaxy. Scientists expect these galaxies to merge a billion years or so from the point of time that the Hubble images show, from the delayed images they are receiving, scientists can only watch history unfurl bit by bit; in a billion years, people may know if these scientists were right.

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During Hubble’s 32 years in service, Hubble has been able to create a 3D map of dark matter.  Scientists theorize that dark matter has a role in influencing the cloud formation around the galaxy group and slowing the individual galaxies down. The theory is that as dark matter slows down the energy, the galaxies will form together.

The Hickson Compact Group 40 are just one of over 50,000 stunning celestial objects captured from over 1.5 million images that Hubble has shared with the public during its 32 years in service.

It is very apt that NASA has used the Hickson Compact Group 40 to highlight Hubble’s anniversary.  It was Edwin Hubble who taught us that there exist other multiple galaxies than just our own. Maybe our galaxy, like the Hickson Compact Group 40, will merge with other galaxies. Perhaps it will be a violent event, or perhaps the little-understood influence of dark matter will slow the energies, and galaxies will more gently merge. We might not know for another billion years, but space continues to remain fascinating because of the influence of Hubble.

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Hubble’s days are numbered

Even though the Hubble telescope has had some wear and tear over the years, there is no denying it is still doing a pretty great job. It is hoped that Hubble will be functioning and used for many years in the future, even with the availability of the James Webb telescope for observing the universe.

However, there is no denying that Hubble’s days are numbered. Compared to telescope technologies invented today, its technology could be described as mediocre, but Hubble’s position orbiting space gives it a massive vantage point that Earth-based telescopes don’t have.

Its instruments have had damage from cosmic rays, producing distorted pixels in its imagery that must be edited out. Engineers have been forced to use Hubble’s backup systems as some of Hubble’s computers and hardware systems have failed.

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When Hubble was launched 32 years ago, it had six functioning gyroscopes. Gyroscopes are components used for measuring and maintaining angular velocity and orientation. Hubble uses its gyros to slightly maneuver itself out of the way of objects in space.

Kathryn Thornton replacing the solar arrays of the Hubble space telescope during the STS 61 mission 9400261
Hubble space telescope service mission by NASA

Hubble is currently functioning with just two gyroscopes.  Over time NASA has had to accommodate the Hubble mission functioning on fewer gyroscopes. In a scenario where Hubble is down to just one gyroscope, NASA will make corrections using the Earth’s magnetic field to orient Hubble.

When the last gyroscope breaks, that will be the end of the Hubble mission, even if all of Hubble’s other science instruments are still working fine.

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Amazingly Hubble has avoided being hit by passing space junk and satellites over its mission that has spanned 32 years.  With more satellites arriving in low orbit since the early 2000s, the risk of this happening has doubled.

Hubble telescope’s contributions to space science

Here is a summary of a just a few ways that astronomers have been able to use the Hubble telescope to make outstanding contributions to science and space theory:

  • Using Hubble, scientists think they can calculate the universe’s age to be approximately 13.8 billion years.  This is considered to be three times the age of Earth.
  • With Hubble, astronomers were first able to discover and observe Nix and Hydra, two moons of Pluto.
Plutos new moons
NASA
  • Hubble has helped scientists determine that the universe is expanding.
  • Using Hubble observations, astronomers have demonstrated that nearly every major galaxy has a black hole at its center.
  • Hubble has been used to create a 3D map of dark matter.

Who was Edwin Hubble?

The Hubble Space Telescope was named after Edwin Hubble.  He was a man who became one of the most eminent astronomers of the twentieth century after he discovered in the 1920s that there were countless other galaxies in existence beyond our own galaxy, the Milky Way.  This revelation transformed people’s understanding of the universe and Earth’s place within it.

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Edwin Hubble’s story is an interesting one. Hubble almost never became a professional astronomer, even though he was an avid astronomer as a boy. 

His life could have followed several different trajectories that would have meant we would have never had the man that inspired astronomy today.  

When he was younger, Hubble wasn’t great at spelling; in the era he grew up, that would have meant that he didn’t stand out for his intellectual abilities. Young Edwin Hubble was more noted for his athletic abilities and was a very gifted athlete. In 1906 at a high school track and field meet, he was noted for winning seven first places and a third place. He was also a talented basketball player leading the University of Chicago’s basketball team in 1907. 

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Edwin Powell Hubble

His father desired Hubble should develop a career in the law.  In honor of his father, Hubble focussed first on law at the University of Chicago and later at Oxford, taking some additional math and scientific studies.

Hubble’s father died while Hubble was in England. Hubble returned to USA for a while to care for his mother and his younger siblings. He lost his motivation to practice law and became a high school teacher, teaching Spanish, maths, and physics.  Then, a year later, with his former professor’s help, he was successfully admitted to the University of Chicago, that gave him access to the facilities at Yerkes Observatory to study astronomy, where Hubble completed his PhD.  His dissertation was titled “Photographic Investigations of Faint Nebulae”

Before his career in science Hubble rushed to complete his PHD dissertation to volunteer for military service when the US declared war on Germany in 1917.  Hubble rose to the rank of Major while serving in the 2nd Battalion, 343 Infantry Regiment. Fortunately for Hubble, the 86th Division where he served was not deployed to combat.  After the war Hubble went to Cambridge university to study astronomy.

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Hubble’s scientific career in astronomy began when he became a staff member at the Carnegie Institution for Science‘s Mount Wilson Observatory.  He served there from 1919 until he died in 1953.

Some notable achievements of Hubble’s career include:

  • He was the first astronomer to use the newly completed Hale Telescope.
  • He assisted the military in World War II, helping them develop their expertise in ballistics research.  For his work in ballistics, Hubble was awarded the Legion of Merit.

It was very early in Hubble’s career at the Mount Wilson Observatory, in 1924 that he conclusively proved that there were galaxies outside of our own galaxy.  Before Hubble had proved his theory it had always been thought that ours was the only galaxy.

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It is no wonder that Hubble’s name was nominated to be the name of the first-ever telescope launched to orbit in space.

Complementary to James Webb telescope mission

With scarce powerful observational resources deployed in space, it is possible that Hubble and the James Webb telescope could do joint observations to provide astronomers with more in-depth detail of a celestial target.  For example, astronomers might use Hubble to study the radiation of hot, new stars while applying their efforts on the Webb telescope to investigate the cooler, dusty regions where stars haven’t ignited yet.

Two things are clear; the Hubble telescope will be used for some time to its max potential until it can’t be used anymore. Edwin Hubble’s name will live on; he was a man who could have chosen many career paths but, in the end, pursued his childhood passion for astronomy.

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Feature image credit: The Hubble Space Telescope in orbit by European Space Agency under CC BY 4.0