In the early 1990s, on a trip to the Space Telescope Research Institute, Dave Meier was greeted with persistence and enthusiasm. “You must see it.”
Elsewhere in the building, image after image is uploaded onto carefully controlled screens, and each time you can hear the scientists gasp for breath. “What is it ?” Meyer exclaims. Then he finds himself staring at a dark background dotted with small galaxies of deceptive size, floating at distances that the human mind simply cannot imagine.
These images were taken from the Hubble Space Telescope. He finally began to discover the deep universe – and what he just discovered was amazing.
“We’ve seen strange things,” says Meyer, a professor at Northwestern University who is interested in Hubble’s discoveries. Among the galaxies, which, moreover, were quite similar to what could be found in the imagination of an astronomer, many did not resemble the spirals characteristic of worlds closer to ours. Meyer quickly realized what was in front of him.
It was clear evidence of the evolution of our universe thanks to the telescope we just launched into space. “I was really shocked,” he says. Mankind has now seen much further than before.
But shortly thereafter, in 1995, Hubble broke its own record when NASA released its first deep field. In the seemingly empty patch of sky was a whole menagerie of galaxies far, far away. “This very first Hubble Deep Field image was groundbreaking,” says Morgan Van Arsdall, Hubble Space Telescope Deputy Systems Officer and Program Manager at Lockheed Martin. “Looking at a piece of the ‘dark’ sky and seeing so many stars and galaxies, you can see how much we still have to learn about the universe.”
And over the next 27 years, as we learned more about the universe, the name “Hubble” was associated with almost every marvel of space that appeared before our eyes. Then came July 11, 2022, the day we managed to get even further. But this time we did it without Hubble.
Welcome James Webb Space Telescope
Last week, NASA made headlines in nearly every headline. Indeed, United States President Joe Biden awkwardly showed off a decade-old state-of-the-art Hubble Deep Field imaging, the brainchild of the brilliant James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).
Then, the day after that amazing broadcast, there were even more JWST images to admire. “I believe I said words that your editor would not have seen fit to publish,” says Matt Kaplan, assistant professor of physics at the University of Illinois, and this reaction is no doubt shared by many.
Unlike Hubble, which was built to be 547 km above our atmosphere and reveal the visible universe, the JWST is built to live 1.6 million km from Earth and discover the invisible. To give us these images, he had to look for cosmic fragments coming from a source elusive to the human eye, in other words, infrared light. Strong emotions were rightly felt all over the world as humanity regained a new understanding of the outer universe and of itself.
It’s been a glorious week for astronomy. But as we celebrate, perhaps we should reflect on what we’ve been up to at Hubble over the past few days.
We openly presented our once-innovative and beloved telescope as a haggard model to highlight the JWST’s magnificent transformation. We are also to blame for this. There are hundreds of articles, Reddit threads and Twitter posts dedicated to him, and while not without reason, he seems to have created a false narrative. It’s like we’re hinting that Hubble is dead.
That’s why, as we prepare for the inevitable influx of JWST masterpieces, it’s worth remembering that without Hubble, we would never have had access to these images. “The entire research landscape is defined by what Hubble has seen and leaves us open to speculation about what we could learn if we could see a little more,” says Kaplan. And even if it seems so, Hubble is definitely not dead.
“We will continue to absolutely need Hubble,” says Nicole Lewis, an astronomer at Cornell University. “Actually, I’m trying to come up with a budget for a big Hubble cash flow program.” Lewis is looking for what Hubble has but JWST doesn’t. She studies exoplanets and intends to use wavelengths of visible and ultraviolet light to decipher the clouds and fogs of alien worlds – light to which JWST is not sensitive. “There’s a lot of important information at those wavelengths.”
Despite the influence of JWST, Hubble remains the best candidate for studying galaxies that move along the X or Y axis, rather than the Z axis. While the movement of galaxies “toward” and “away from Earth” is very easy to measure with “redshift”, a feature of JWST, “side-to-side movement is more complex,” Kaplan said.
In fact, it was thanks to this unique Hubble power that we were able to realize a pretty important detail about galaxies. Many of them are now falling apart.
By looking at Andromeda — the galaxy that Hubble’s namesake used as evidence in 1923 to prove that our universe extends beyond the Milky Way — and measuring how its light travels from one pixel to the next, the predecessor of the JWST showed us that this the galaxy doesn’t just revolve around us. “They will really collide,” Kaplan says. Would JWST notice?
All of which is to say that as the JWST continues to flood the Internet with colorful images of the far reaches of space, we must remember that this is not a replacement for Hubble. JWST is its successor. It will work in tandem with Hubble and will not exist without it.
“The JWST science program will build on the legacy of more than three decades of Hubble science,” says Van Arsdall. In a sense, JWST can lean on the shoulder of a giant. Hubble had only the unknown.
As with Kaplan, Lewis, Van Arsdall and Meyer, Hubble’s “Azure Nebulae” and “Black-Streaked Deep Fields” have undoubtedly influenced the careers of nearly every physicist, including the team behind NASA’s new JWST.
“The Hubble deep field image inspired me as a child,” recalls Jason Rabinowitz, a former JPL engineer and professor at Stevens Institute of Technology, “and fueled my lifelong passion for space and space exploration. “.
Even Hubble’s rather troubling undertakings have served as an excuse for humanity to take a look at the cosmos. When the Silver Space Telescope was launched in 1990, everyone was so excited to see what they saw when it was free of Earth’s atmosphere. Then… the first images appeared. “It looks like it was a disaster,” Mr. Meyer said.
All early Hubble images were blurry. Nothing to do with JWST’s Carina Nebula, worthy of being Apple’s default screen saver, or Stefan’s Quintet, which brought more than one tear. It turned out to be a problem with the scope lens. Things were going badly. Everyone was stressed. But that hasn’t stopped NASA from dealing with the problem.
The agency decided to send teams of astronauts aboard the space shuttle to repair Hubble. In space. “People could watch it in real time,” Meyer says. “They could see NASA astronauts in space fixing the telescope.” Moments like this earned Hubble the endearing nickname in its heyday: “The People’s Telescope.” And that’s what he was.
“I grew up fascinated by the shuttle program and was fascinated by the way astronauts service Hubble,” said Mr. Van Arsdall. “That’s what motivated me to become an aerospace engineer.”
Thank you Hubble for giving us the stars
There is no denying that the Hubble Space Telescope, a giant cylinder that appears to be wrapped in Reynolds film, is a cultural icon. It pervades films, books, photography, poetry, visual arts, television, and perhaps even wedding vows. As Kaplan says, “He is a titan who defines the modern era.”
“I was one of those kids who watched Star Trek, and you can see footage from Hubble posted on the screens,” notes Lewis. “There are people who like being outdoors. I love being in space… and since I can’t walk in space, the best way to do that is to use things like the Hubble Space Telescope.”
But the love of space for people who together represent only its molecule is not a new phenomenon. And this is probably no coincidence. It is much more interesting to dream when reality is like a fantasy.
Take Vincent van Gogh’s 1889 Starry Night, for example. This painting is an artistic representation of a shimmering night landscape and uses the pigment Prussian blue to a large extent.
Prussian blue is a color discovered in the 18th century by the scientist Johann Konrad Dippel, who, as Benjamin Labatuth writes in his novel When We Stop Understanding the World, was amazed because he thought he had discovered “a color that comes from heaven.” But Dippel didn’t come up with the idea alone. This meant the legendary shade that the ancient Egyptians thought of.
Our obsession with space goes back centuries and will continue for centuries to come. It’s just that Hubble — and even JWST, for that matter — was the catalyst for our passion. When planning Hubble maintenance missions, NASA sincerely wondered if it would be safe to send astronauts there for repairs. “But the public demanded it,” Meyer recalls.
“Reading the article this morning reminded me of my supervisor’s point of view,” says Honeywell Aerospace engineer Neil Rowlands of the day he saw the first JWST results. “The only good story in the entire newspaper was about the JWST photos.”
As Rowlands has been a JWST engineer for nearly 25 years, he also notes, “I worked with optical performance numbers. [de ce dernier] so long […]. I’ve lost all sense of what those numbers actually mean in terms of image quality – at least until I see fantastic images.”
But as we watch the qualities of our new space explorer friend, we must remember that his saga grew out of the one that Hubble started when it launched in 1990.
And although the story of the James Webb Space Telescope began with an explosion, we must not let Hubble end in a whimper. “There can be no question of shutting down Hubble,” Meyer said. “We don’t think it will happen in the next decade.”