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Hubble at 20

Tom Feilden | 11:45 UK time, Friday, 23 April 2010

Starburst galaxy M82

We've all marvelled at the incredible pictures - of exploding stars and galaxy clusters.

And if, like me, you're excited by the mysteries - and beauty - of space, they make for great screensavers (mine's currently of a starburst in the galaxy M82).

But the Hubble Space Telescope is about much more than pretty pictures of the cosmos. It has played a vital role in furthering our knowledge and understanding of the universe, and is widely regarded as the most successful piece of scientific equipment ever fired into space.

Launched by the space shuttle Discovery in 1990, Hubble was initially a bit of a disaster. A tiny spherical aberration in the telescope's primary mirror threatened to de-rail the whole project. Much of the fine detail in the first pictures beamed back to earth was blurred, and for a while the double decker bus sized instrument looked like claiming the prize for biggest white elephant ever launched into space.

All that changed in 1993 when the crew of the space shuttle Endeavour retrofitted an ingenious solution to the problem - effectively adding corrective spectacles to the telescope and counteracting the mirror's distortions.

That first servicing mission was an unqualified success, and the Hubble Space Telescope has been beaming back astonishing images of the Cosmos - including my screensaver - ever since.

It's impressive list of scientific achievements includes settling the age of the universe (at 13.7 billion years), establishing that massive black holes sit at the centre of most galaxies, and that the expansion of the universe is accelerating.

According to the President of the Royal Astronomical Society, Andy Fabian, Hubble is a hugely impressive instrument that has helped to usher in a "Golden Age" in astronomy.

"Lots of discoveries are being made. Really fundamental, basic discoveries, about what the universe is made of. Hubble is a playing a great role in all of this. It is a formidable scientific instrument, and it's a very exciting time to be doing astronomy".

The Cambridge astronomer and author of "Secrets of the Universe", Professor Paul Murdin goes even further, comparing the impact of Hubble to Galileo's decision 400 years ago to turn his telescope to the sky.

"What he saw changed our perception of the Universe. Hubble has done the same, and the genuine scientific achievements that have come out of the telescope have been outstanding".

After a total of 4 life-extending service missions Hubble is scheduled for decommissioning in 2014. By then its successor the James Webb Space Telescope should be up and running. But it will have some way to go to match Hubble's extraordinary success.

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