When the Hubble Space Telescope was launched into space in 1990, astronomers and citizens worldwide prepared to be astounded for years by what the school-bus-sized device would transmit back to Earth. They have not been disappointed. Hubble has been a grand achievement for the United States and for NASA in particular, and it has given American scientists a powerful way to share knowledge and raw data with their colleagues everywhere.
Now, because of repairs made by the seven-man crew of the space shuttle Atlantis on a 13-day mission that ended Sunday, Hubble is expected to be even better than it was originally. During five space walks, the astronauts refurbished Hubble with state-of-the-art instruments and equipment, including batteries, designed to improve the telescope's discovery capabilities by up to 70 times. Its life has been extended through at least 2014. Initial reports indicate that the newly repaired telescope is performing well and will improve when all systems are fully back online.
Atlantis, which will be grounded with the rest of the shuttle fleet next year, was possibly the last manned servicing mission to Hubble. The telescope's replacement, the James Webb Space Telescope, will not liftoff for several years, and it will be launched to a height that is beyond the reach of current manned spaceships. Officials say that human hands probably have touched Hubble for the final time.
Scientists are hailing Hubble's discoveries even as they anticipate many more. Among the telescope's greatest discoveries, according to NASA, is the age of the universe (13.7 billion years); the finding that virtually all major galaxies have black holes at their center; evidence that the process of planetary formation is relatively common; finding the first organic molecule in the atmosphere of a planet orbiting another star; and evidence that the expansion of the universe is accelerating — caused by an unknown force that makes up about 72 percent of the matter-energy content of the universe.
For nearly two decades, Hubble has peered across space and time to give scientists a glimpse of our origins. With a lot of luck and continued expertise on Earth, the Hubble telescope should continue to send spectacular photographs and information from deep space.