Originally published in the Batesville Daily Guard
When you look up at the sky at night, you see the moon, stars and the occasional red-beacon of a plane flying over head. But also up there, close to Earth but just out of sight are hundreds, if not thousands, of man-made satellites, man-made debris, a couple of space stations and dozens of space telescopes.
The most famous of those space telescopes, as far as Americans are concerned at least, is the Hubble Space Telescope, which has now been in orbit for 26 years. That’s longer than 33 percent of the U.S. population has been alive.
I was close to the end of seventh grade when Hubble was launched April 25, 1990. Of course, being 12, I wasn’t interested in the news too much back then, but I remember some coverage of it. Much of it due to Arsenio Hall deriding it for “taking the same picture” of some far off object which I forget the name of, that looked identical to one taken by a terrestrial telescope.
But unlike the Arsenio Hall Show, the Hubble telescope is still around.
Aside from a few issues in the beginning, particularly that with a flawed mirror, the Hubble telescope has helped turn space into something more than a few bright ambiguous lights in the sky.
Through the Hubble, we learned more about the age of the universe, that the rate of expansion of the universe is increasing, learned about black holes in neighboring galaxies and discovered the evidence for exoplanets around other stars.
But its biggest impact on the public has probably been its images. From the cosmic fireworks of the Tarantula Nebula to the Pillars of Creation 7,000 light years away, the universe became an amazing and beautiful place again. Now when we look at the night sky, we know there’s more up there than the white light of distant stars. Instead we can look up an imagine the millions of suns being born out of the clouds within a nebula at this moment, the terrific power of a supernova exploding and wiping out entire solar systems and galaxies colliding to become one … including our own which is on a crash course with the Andromeda Galaxy which will rock us in about 4 billion years.
It is also one of the most egalitarian projects by a space agency that I know of. Use of the telescope is open to the public, regardless of nationality or academic institution. It is accessible to amateur astronomers, who can file to use it for a few hours each cycle. It opened the door to space wide open for everyone.
And in short, it helped show us how awesome and how crowded space actually is.
With it becoming such an integral part of bringing space to the public, it’s hard to imagine that it wasn’t supposed to be up there this long.
Originally, it was expected Hubble would have a lifespan of 15 years and its last service mission was in 2009. But, showing its resilience, it continues on its mission, traveling more than 3 billion miles since it was launched almost a generation ago.
Earlier this week, NASA said that the Hubble will stay in operation for the next five years. The agency extended its contract with the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy to support its operation at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. The extension has moved the end of its operation from July 1, 2016, to June 30, 2021.
But inevitably, the end will come.
The James Webb Space Telescope is set to replace the Hubble in 2018. Where the Hubble stays in low earth orbit, about 354 miles away, the JWST will be in the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange point, 932,000 miles away. A Lagrangian point is the position in orbital configuration between two large bodies is affected only by the gravity it can maintain a stable position. The L2 is on the other side of the moon, putting the JWST somewhere between Earth and Mars most of the time. Imagine what the view will be like way out there.
JWST will also operate in the infrared spectrum, which will allow it to study the earliest parts of the universe in more detail. The Hubble observes the universe in visible and ultraviolet light.
So what happens in 2021?
Well, the Hubble will stay in orbit for a while, years probably. Based on solar activity and lack of atmospheric drag a natural atmospheric reentry for Hubble will occur between 2030 and 2040. Around the time I’m 60 years old, probably. As it re-enters, most of it will burn away, leaving just a few parts surviving the fall, which will probably be into an ocean somewhere.
It’s kind of melancholic thinking about something that has been a fixture of the sky so long falling to the sky and burning into nothingness. But I guess that’s ultimately how the Earth will turn out eventually when it’s consumed by the sun as it expands into a red giant in a few billion years. Of course, one could consider that better than the big freeze which many scientist theorize will happen when all the energy generated by suns is finally exhausted.
It’s a frightening thing to contemplate and maybe that won’t be the case. Who knows what we’ll find next, it seems some new discovery changes everything we thought we knew before before on a pretty constant basis now.
For now though, instead of thinking of where everything will go, I think it’s just better to look at the sky and appreciate that there’s more than any of us will ever see out there. And what wonder is there to life if you’ve seen everything that there is to see?