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Hubble Will Peer Deeper into Universe’s Mysteries

With the addition of two new research tools, NASA’s repair mission should greatly improve the data gathered by the space telescope.

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.

This detail from the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (HUDF) image, completed in 2004 after astronomers combined observations derived from more than 400 Hubble orbits, shows dozens of galaxies as they were as little as 400 million years after the big bang–about 3 percent of the present age of the universe. Until the James Webb Space Telescope is launched in 2013, this is expected to remain the deepest look ever into the cosmos. (Credit: NASA, ESA, S. Beckwith (STScI), and the HUDF team)

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.

Thanks to advances in solid-state detectors, the new camera will be “almost an order of magnitude more sensitive” than its predecessor, WFC2, says Jeffrey Hoffman, a professor of astronautics at MIT and a former astronaut who helped install the WFC2 during a Hubble servicing mission in 1993. By increasing the telescope’s ability to detect faint objects, Hoffman says, the new camera will open up “a huge unexplored discovery space,” with a potential for new discoveries that can’t be predicted.

The new repair mission will also include an attempt to fix the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS), one of the instruments delivered during an earlier Hubble servicing mission in 1997. STIS worked successfully until 2004, when it suffered a power failure. Before it failed, though, this instrument made a major breakthrough, providing direct evidence for the first time of supermassive black holes in the center of some galaxies. Astronomers had long believed such black holes existed, but having the proof helped confirm the theoretical predictions.

Astronauts will attempt to repair the instrument during an upcoming mission, which is tentatively scheduled for the spring of 2008. Pursuing the work on black holes, including learning more about how they formed and how they interact when galaxies collide, will be among the instrument’s high priorities if the challenging repairs succeed. Unlike replacing entire instruments, which was a capability designed into Hubble from the start, repairing the failed power supply is a much trickier operation that involves getting into the guts of the instrument to swap out components. Hoffman points out that this requires removing 120 bolts that could potentially float around and damage other parts of the telescope.

To prevent this, NASA has developed “a very clever scheme” with a Plexiglas container that will capture all the loose bolts as they are removed, Hoffman says. “If everything goes right, they’ll make it look easy.”

Wheeler says that one important outcome of keeping the Hubble telescope working longer is that it is now expected to survive long enough to overlap with the next-generation telescope that will ultimately take its place: the James Webb Space Telescope, which is to be launched in 2013. While the Webb telescope will be much larger than Hubble, with a 6.5-meter-diameter main mirror compared with Hubble’s 1.8 meters, Webb will not replace all of Hubble’s function. Webb is designed primarily for infrared observing, while Hubble is also effective for visible and ultraviolet light.

Having both telescopes functional at the same time, which is not assured but is now likely, is “terribly important,” Wheeler says. “It gives you a multispectral capability” for coordinated observations, and thus “you get a lot more information” about a given object.

Until then, the repaired Hubble will continue carrying out a variety of projects that can’t be done with any other instrument. “You can’t do the science” without Hubble, Wheeler says.

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