To Better See the Universe

Posted Monday, April 23, 2018 at 2:18 PM

"Engineering creates technology that helps science better see and understand the universe."

To Better See the Universe

PostedMonday, April 23, 2018 at 2:42 PM

Kate Gramling
Kate Gramling
To Better See the Universe

Last week, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) released beautiful images of the Lagoon Nebula, a dense cloud of gas and dust that stretches across a vast area of space, 55 light-years wide and 20 light-years tall.  (To put that in perspective, the outermost objects in our solar system – the Oort cloud – are only 2 light-years from the sun.) This is just the latest stunning imagery of the universe delivered by the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Hubble is a celebrity among tools for scientific discovery. Even people with little knowledge of astronomy or astrophysics have heard of this marvel of science and engineering. Even though it’s been giving us beautiful images of space for two-and-a-half decades, Hubble’s story is longer and more interesting than many people realize.

The idea of putting a telescope in space dates back to the 1920s, when engineers were still figuring out how to make rockets work. The first satellites designed specifically to make astronomical observations, launched the 1960s. They demonstrated the value of space-based observations by collecting data on the kinds of energy and light that are normally absorbed by our atmosphere and therefore difficult to study on the ground.

Finally, in 1978, funding was provided and planning and development of the Hubble began. It was originally scheduled for launch in late 1986, but the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in January, forced the launch to be delayed several years. Engineers took the time make several improvements to the telescope.

Hubble was launched on April 24, 1990. Unfortunately, within weeks of the launch, it became clear that there was a serious problem with the optical system: the images were fuzzy. Analysis found that the telescope’s primary mirror had been ground to the wrong shape. The telescope could still be used to make observations, but its use in studying deep space was limited.

Fortunately, engineers designed the telescope with the idea that astronauts would periodically service it, updating sensors as technology improved. It was impossible to replace the mirror, but scientists and engineers working together were able to identify the needed correction and develop new components for the optical system. Essentially, they found a way to give the Hubble eyeglasses.

Repairs were completed by astronauts in December 1993 and less than a month later, NASA announced the complete success of the correction by releasing new, sharp images to the public. And the images have kept on coming.


Hubble is usually celebrated because it shows us the marvels of the universe in stunning pictures. But as a tool for scientific discovery, it’s even more remarkable. It has helped us to: measure the age of the universe, understand galaxies, discover planets outside our solar system, study black holes and dark matter, even document the death of stars. It produces about 10TB of data each year that scientists will be able to work with for years to come.

Learn more about the Hubble Space Telescope on the NASA website.

The story of the Hubble Space Telescope is a great example of how engineering helps solve problems and create technology that helps science better see and understand the universe.


How do you think engineering advances will help science better undestand the universe over the next 15 years?


Photo: Lagoon Nebula, courtesy of NASA, ESA, and STScI


Filed Under Aeronautical/Aerospace Software Mechanical Space