NGC 2014 and NGC 2020
Released April 24, 2020, the giant red nebula (NGC 2014) and its smaller blue neighbour (NGC 2020) are part of a vast star-forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud. (NASA, ESA and STScI)

Recap: 30 Years of the Hubble Space Telescope

Thirty years after Hubble’s launch, we marked the anniversary with the news chief and the author of its official book.

Thirty years after the Hubble Space Telescope launched into orbit, SkyNews and The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada marked the anniversary with its news chief and the author of the official book on its operations.

On April 24, RASC president Chris Gainor, who is writing the official NASA history of Hubble operations, joined Hubble news chief Ray Villard for an online Speaker Series talk.

The Hubble Space Telescope has provided images of the universe from its location in Earth orbit for three decades. With the help of space shuttle astronauts, Hubble overcame a major technical defect built into its main mirror, becoming a key tool in making discoveries that have fundamentally changed our view of the universe and transformed the way astronomy is done.

“What has made Hubble famous has been the imagery,” said Villard, who has been the telescope’s news chief for 34 years. “It hits people at a very visceral level, an emotional level.”

From how the telescope gets energy and moves in orbit to its future in space, the two experts explored Hubble’s operations, initial failures, eventual achievements, and place in culture.

Villard pointed out that Hubble has gone far beyond its initial goals. He said it was “sold to Congress” on hopes scientific discoveries like refining the cosmic distance scale and working on the origin and evolution of the Solar System, he said his job has been kept exciting through discoveries like exoplanets, dark energy and the abundance of black holes.

Hubble Space Telescop news chief Ray Villard (second from the left), on launch day April 24, 1990.

That picture of me and my colleagues back at launch — none of us could have imagined the incredible new universe … All the discoveries that nobody had even thought about.

— Ray Villard, Hubble Space Telescope news chief

Undersea corral? Enchanted castles? Space serpents? Actually, incubators for new stars. This is part of the “Eagle Nebula,” a nearby star-forming region 6,500 light-years away in the constellation Serpens. The image came to be known as the “Pillars of Creation.” (NASA, ESA, STScI, J. Hester and P. Scowen at Arizona State University)

Villard mentioned the “Pillars of Creation” — which he helped name — noting that the image is the “most seminal” picture from Hubble.

“It has reached people at a whole level, a philosophical level. Beyond the nitty-gritty science,” he said.

For the 30th anniversary, the Hubble team released an image of the giant red nebula (NGC 2014) and its smaller blue neighbour (NGC 2020).

“We picked this partly out of numerology,” Villard said, noting the blue nebula is NGC 2020. “Somebody thought, ‘Oh that’ll be cute; it’ll be 2020.'”

Released April 24, 2020, the giant red nebula (NGC 2014) and its smaller blue neighbour (NGC 2020) are part of a vast star-forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud. (NASA, ESA and STScI)

Gainor, a historian, noted that at the telescope is named after Edwin Hubble. He pointed out that the 100th anniversary of Hubble’s big discovery is coming up in a few months, too.

“Hubble was the astronomer who really firmed up the discovery that our universe is much bigger than the Milky Way Galaxy we lived in,” he said.

The Hubble telescope was named after him because of his great position in the history of American astronomy, but also because one of the great expectations put on Hubble was that it was going to find out how big our universe is and how far back in time it goes. It was certainly successful on that score.

— Chris Gainor, RASC president

Gainor also noted that in its early days, amateur astronomers could actually bid for time on Hubble. He said 12 amateur proposals were carried out with the space telescope.

“I must say, while there was a whole variety of applications, some of the ideas from amateur astronomers were really first class,” he said, noting Villard was involved in the program. He also added the data is free and available to the public.

And so, after its 30 years in the sky, what might be its eventual cause of death?

Villard said he had heard from the team that day the primary systems were working well, and if any fail there are redundancies. He said the team is “very, very optimistic” that the telescope’s operations will continue well into the 2020s.

You could have a catastrophic electronic failure. The gyros will be slow death, but again, we can run on one gyro. I’ll tell you, though, there was a worry that it was going to get hit with something, and they debated what to do, and then they felt — orbital debris, and then they said the probability’s so low we’re not going to worry about it.

When I talk to our operations people, they don’t give me any disaster scenarios. They say, as long as your heart keeps pumping you’re fine.

— Ray Villard, Hubble Space Telescope news chief

For more on the Hubble Space Telescope’s 30th anniversary, pick up the March-April edition of SkyNews Magazine.

Still want more? Gainor wrote this piece for The RASC Journal in 2010 when Hubble celebrated its 20th anniversary. He has also published this piece detailing his upcoming book, Not Yet Imagined: A Study of Hubble Space Telescope Operations. Gainor said the book will be available at the end of summer or early autumn 2020.