Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Humbling Hubble

The space shuttle Atlantis blasted off yesterday on a much anticipated repair mission to the aging Hubble Space Telescope. The Hubble is now pushing 20 years old, and a number of its systems are failing. The astronauts on Atlantis will be repairing and/or replacing those items, as well as installing a number of upgrades. They will also be leaving behind a supply of Depends™.

Trivia: The telescope is named for Edwin Hubble, and he is best known for his discovery in the 1920s that the little bright blobs seen in those early telescopes were actually other galaxies. Until then, astronomers actually believed that the Milky Way was the entire universe. Truly amazing how far we come in just over 80 years.

Anyway, this mission to Hubble is the last one, so it has to count. The shuttle fleet is due to be retired next year, and NASA will have no other means to launch another such mission. A replacement 'shuttle' won't be ready until at least 2015, and by then NASA will be fully involved in a return to the moon. By the time that happens, China will likely have landed its own people on the moon and firmly established a number of takeouts featuring the best Kung Pao this side of the asteroid belt.

If you look at the accompanying photo, you can see two shuttles ready for launch. This is the first time NASA has done that. Should it be discovered that Atlantis was seriously damaged during launch (as happened with the Columbia), it will be up to the crew of the Endeavour to rescue their comrades on the Atlantis. Unlike other missions to the International Space Station, the Atlantis crew will not have the option of seeking temporary shelter there. The Hubble's orbit is just too different from that of the ISS. Recent budget cutbacks forced NASA to remove the Garmin from the dashboard of the Atlantis, so there's no way the crew would have been able to find its way to the space station.

During its life, the Hubble has returned some truly remarkable images of the cosmos. Though I've posted the following video before, it's worth watching again. And if this doesn't leave you feeling humbled, then you're just beyond hope.

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