Last week NASA announced a new Hubble repair mission, one that could extend the orbiting telescope’s lifetime by at least five years and provide astronomers with unparalleled research about the origins of the universe. The space telescope will get a new camera and spectrograph (a device for measuring light waves), and some existing components will be fixed.
The new capabilities will continue Hubble’s record of “pushing the frontiers outwards,” says Craig Wheeler, an astronomer at the University of Texas and president of the American Astronomical Society. The Hubble telescope has already peered deeper into the cosmos than any other, and with two new instruments, “it will be able to do it better, potentially pushing back toward the origins of the universe,” Wheeler says.
A new Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) will be installed in the telescope, increasing its ability to detect ultraviolet light by a factor of 30. That will make it possible to observe hundreds of objects “that are just too faint to image with Hubble’s other instruments,” says the University of Colorado’s Michael Shull, a member of the team that developed the COS instrument.
COS could help astronomers understand how the galaxies formed by analyzing the mix of elements spewed out by quasars and by dying stars called supernovae. The only other existing telescope that can monitor ultraviolet light is the aging FUSE, a much smaller instrument that is only expected to last another year or so. Without the Hubble repair mission, Shull says, ultraviolet astronomers were facing at least a decade without the necessary equipment for making new observations. COS will make it possible to do the first thorough survey of the sky for ultraviolet sources, according to Shull. “Until now, we’ve only scratched the surface,” he says. “Instead of 10 or 15 sources [of light] around the whole sky, there will be hundreds, if not thousands.”
Astronomers are also excited about the third-generation Wide-Field Camera (WFC3), which will greatly increase the capabilities of the camera that has been Hubble’s most-used instrument. The existing camera has already revealed much about our solar system, distant galaxies, and clouds of gas. It is also used to create the Hubble Ultra Deep Field images, which probed deeper into the cosmos than any previous astronomical image, revealed galaxies in their earliest stages of formation, and forced revisions in earlier theories of how these giant collections of stars came together.