On This Day: Hubble Space Telescope Was Placed into Orbit in 1990

by Clayton Edwards

Space is the final frontier. At least, that’s what Star Fleet has been telling us for decades. The first step in exploring the vastness of the universe is getting a good look at it. With that in mind, NASA launched the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990. The telescope has been orbiting the Earth for thirty-one years today. It wasn’t the first of its kind. However, it is one of the largest and has the widest range of uses. Its launch and subsequent upkeep have been incredibly important to the scientific community. At the same time, it has been integral in our common understanding of the universe.

America has a long history of probing the depths of space. In 1961, Alan Shepard Jr. became the first American to enter space. Nine years later, Apollo 13 made its fateful flight. By this time, plans were already in motion to put the Hubble Telescope in space.

To celebrate the Hubble Space Telescope’s 31st year in orbit, we’ll look back at its history. Then, we’ll discuss some of its capabilities and discoveries. Finally, we’ll see what lies in the future for the spacecraft.

The Hubble Space Telescope’s Long Road to Orbit

Rome wasn’t built in a day. The same could be said about the Hubble Telescope. The concept of launching a telescope into space is an old one. Scientists were trying to figure out the logistics of putting eyes in space long before humans had the capability to breach the atmosphere.

In fact, the Hubble Space Telescope was nearly five decades in the making, according to History. It was first conceived in the 1940s. Three decades later, experts set to work designing the massive craft. Designers worked on the project throughout the 1970s. Then, engineers started assembling the telescope in the eighties. By April of 1990, the telescope was ready to look deep into the unknown reaches of space.

The Hubble Space Telescope would give NASA an unparalleled look into the universe. With its location, just outside Earth’s atmosphere, it could get clearer images. The distortion of the atmosphere would no longer be a problem. At the same time, it would suffer from less light pollution than earthbound telescopes. It was also larger and more versatile than any other telescope in orbit.

On this day in 1990, the crew of the space shuttle Discovery took the Hubble Space Telescope into low-Earth orbit. It has been there ever since. The HST makes a full orbit of the earth every 97 minutes.

Early Problems and Maintenance

The Hubble Space Telescope was decades in the making. So, when it finally reached orbit, an air of excitement swept the scientific community. However, problems reared their heads early in the telescope’s life.

It didn’t take operators long to realize that something was wrong with the images coming back from the Hubble Space Telescope. After years of designing, engineering, and construction, one of the most important components of the HST was flawed. The main mirror of the HST was ground incorrectly. This caused a spherical aberration. This meant that the light and images entering the lens were improperly reflected.

Three years later, a team of spacewalking astronauts traveled to the Hubble Space Telescope and repaired the mirror. Only then did the HST start sending high-quality images back to Earth.

Since then, the Hubble Space Telescope has been maintained by astronauts. Five different missions have been flown to repair, replace, or upgrade parts of the HST. Its last repair was in 2009.

Important Discoveries Made by the Hubble Space Telescope

The Hubble Space Telescope has allowed for some huge steps forward in scientific knowledge. For instance, the images gathered from the HST let astronomers calculate the rate of expansion of the universe. This also allowed them to calculate the age of the universe. These two things broadened our overall understanding of the vastness of space and our place in it.

The HST also proved astronomers’ long-standing belief that black holes lied at the center of several galaxies. This led to the study of the similarities in properties of both black holes and galaxies.

The HST has also captured some amazing images over the years. It was the Hubble that brought us the first images of the surface of Pluto. The telescope also captured the moment that a comet struck Jupiter.

The Future of the HST

Experts say that the Hubble Space Telescope will continue to orbit the Earth and send back high-quality images for the next decade or two. At the very least, they expect it to last until 2030. The HST may remain functional until the 2040s. However, its successor is already in the works. The James Webb Space Telescope is set to launch later this year. It boasts upgrades on almost all fronts over the HST.