From the Physics Today Archives – May 2015

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By Amanda Nelson, Associate Archivist

On April 24 2015, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) celebrated the 25th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). As part of the celebration, NASA created a beautiful website detailing the history of the HST with a timeline filled with historical context, as well as images, videos, and resources for students and astronomy fans alike.

Official NASA image for Hubble's 25th anniversary.Physics Today has helped document the Hubble’s journey over the past 25 years including an article detailing the project in April 1990 by C. Robert O’Dell that was published right before the launch. When the Hubble’s primary mirror was discovered to have a flaw shortly after launch, Physics Today covered it in November 1990. Physics Today revisited the subject years later in the October 2004 issue, when NASA was trying to extend the funding and life of HST.

In the oral history interview collection of the Niels Bohr Library & Archives, you can read some first-hand accounts from those who worked on HST, such as Goetz Oertel and Robert Cahn.

As always, these three articles will be available as free content from Physics Today for the next six months and the abstracts are available below.

April 1990: No other astronomy project has taken so long to develop, proven so technologically challenging or cost so much as the Hubble Space Telescope. At a development cost of about $1.5 billion, the HST is big science by the standards of modern physics. Soon after the HST is launched on 12 April, the physics community will determine if the resources and professional efforts that have gone into the HST will produce the promised scientific returns that drew hundreds of the best scientists from the US and Europe into the project.

November 1990: By what sequence of mishaps did the Hubble Space Telescope acquire its unfortunate spherical aberration? And how did this severe optical flaw escape notice until after the HST was launched into orbit last spring? These were the two principal questions set out for the HST Optical Systems Board of Investigation convened by NASA at the end of June, shortly after it became clear that the Hubble telescope was hobbled by half a wavelength of spherical aberration. 

October 2004: In a turnaround, NASA may extend the life of the Hubble Space Telescope by servicing it robotically. But doubts remain over the feasibility of such a mission, and over how NASA would pay for it.