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Friday, 14 April, 2000, 16:07 GMT 17:07 UK
Looking to the future
deep field
Hubble's masterpiece: The Deep Field
The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has spent 10 years in space and is halfway though its orbital life. It has observed 14,000 celestial targets, gathered 3.5 terabytes of data and spawned 2,651 scientific papers.

It has made essential contributions to our knowledge of the age and evolution of the Universe. It has sharpened and extended our view of the cosmos.

As for the controversy following its misshapen mirror, as one astronomer put it: "It was never entirely broken nor was it ever entirely fixed."

But the HST has not achieved all that was expected of it.

Expect the unexpected

At its launch another astronomer said the "real excitement came from the expectation that it would discover the unexpected - things we couldn't predict or imagine".

galaxy
Galactic swirls can reveal the age of the Universe
But Hubble has not found anything completely new - yet.

Dr Robert Williams, former director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, told BBC News Online: "I think its greatest legacy will be the clear view it has given us of the distant Universe. For the first time, we are now able to see galaxies as they were when they were forming in the early Universe."

Astronomer Alan Dressler agrees: "The ability to look at young galaxies with fine resolution and ask how they have formed and changed over time is arguably Hubble's most important contribution."

Nial Tanvir, of the University of Hertfordshire, says: "It has made a profound contribution to a whole number of areas of astronomy. It has seen fine details in the clouds of gas and dust that form new stars, massive black holes, the evolution of galaxies and the age of the Universe."

Default telescope

Hubble sits at the fulcrum of modern astronomy.

Hubble history
1977 - Project begins
1985 - Hubble built
1990, 24 April - Hubble launched
1990, 18 May - First light
1993, December - Flaw repaired
2000, 24 April - 10 years of Hubble
2010 - End of Hubble mission
Whenever an object is discovered using another kind of telescope, they turn to Hubble to see what it looks like. It has become astronomy's default instrument.

But Hubble is changing. Two more space shuttle visits with upgrades are planned. It has to change because ground-based telescopes are getting better and better.

But Hubble still has two great advantages over its rivals. It works in the optical part of the spectrum and is able to see very fine detail in the sky. It also has a wide and stable field of view.

The new astronomy

Hubble has done more than just observe the cosmos. It has changed the very way astronomy is done.

Its data archive is probably the best-operated archive of any observatory. Anyone, not just professional astronomers, can download over the internet all Hubble's images just one year after they are taken.

In their first year, Hubble's observations belong to the astronomer who carries them out. After that they belong to everyone.

This has meant that a whole new generation of astronomers has emerged that uses Hubble on the web. They do not need to apply for telescope time, they just use the archived data. This represents a profound social change for science.

With this policy, people with internet access all over the world can do mainstream astronomy research, despite never contributing to the cost of Hubble.

For many this is the golden age of astronomy. We have sent space probes to most of the planets and actually set foot on the Moon.

We have discovered planets circling other stars, measured the age of the Universe and may even know its fate.

Hubble has made a major contribution to this golden age.

Words by Dr David Whitehouse; Images courtesy of the Space Telescope Science Institute

See also:

14 Apr 00 | Science/Nature
14 Apr 00 | Science/Nature
14 Apr 00 | Science/Nature
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