Hubble’s Triumph Remembered
In 1080p, From ESA’s Hubblecast. Back in 1609, in Venice, Galileo Galilei gave one of the very first demonstrations of his telescope.
A few months after that, he discovered Jupiter’s moons, Io, Ganymede, Callisto and Europa. Four centuries later, another telescope is making history here, as scientists gather to discuss the latest results from Hubble.
Hubble was launched in 1990. And that’s of course when its history of scientific discoveries starts.
But Hubble’s history isn’t just about science and technology. Like Galileo’s story, it’s also one of politics, money… and extremely smart people doing very difficult things.
I became the first project scientist for the observatory in 1972. Probably in the most difficult decisions were the simplifications that we had to make. For example, originally the design was for a 3-metre aperture observatory. But in order to save money, we had to reduce it to its final size of 2.4 metres.
While the Hubble team hacked away at the technical problems and struggled to stay on budget, a political storm was brewing in Washington DC. Politicians were alarmed by the rising costs, and told NASA to find an international partner.
It was a huge boost to the support of the programme in our own Congress because there was a sense that there would also be collaboration and support from outside and in particular from Europe.
Hubble survived the politics, only to be derailed by optics. Spherical aberration – a flaw in the main mirror – meant that the telescope couldn’t focus properly. Where Hubble’s images should have been razor-sharp, astronomers instead struggled to make out the fine details of their observations.
I look back on the days when we diagnosed the spherical aberration as simultaneously the most exhilarating and depressing days of my scientific career.
Because, for the better part of two weeks, we were puzzled as to why this telescope wasn’t performing and it became a scientific problem that scientists had to solve.
But in a