Speaking of Hubble...

Archive: May 2009

SMOVing Forward on Hubble

May 29, 2009 by Frank Summers
Wide Field Camera 3 in the Clean Room at Goddard Space Flight Center.

Wide Field Camera 3 in the Clean Room at Goddard Space Flight Center.

The May 2009 Servicing Mission 4 to the Hubble Space Telescope was a dramatic achievement. The astronaut spacewalks to replace, repair, and refresh the equipment on the observatory were as inspiring as they were successful. Every item on the to do list was checked off, and it is natural to ask “What’s next?”

In particular, folks want to know when the first images from the refurbished Hubble will be released.

The next step for the Hubble engineering team is called SMOV – Servicing Mission Observatory Verification. SMOV is the long process of starting up and checking out the new and repaired instruments.

Unfortunately for those impatient to see Hubble’s wonders once again, SMOV will last throughout the summer of 2009. Three of the reasons for the time required are outgassing, high-voltage, and calibration.

All materials have what chemistry calls “vapor pressure.” They release atoms and molecules, though generally in very small quantities compared to the density of Earth’s air. However, when those materials are taken to the vacuum of space, that vapor pressure becomes important.

Outgassing is the period during which the vapor pressure of the materials slowly decreases and adjusts to the space environment.

One reason outgassing is important is because the instruments use high-voltage power. Stray gases could conduct electricity and create a short. The high-voltage is slowly raised in increments and the response of the circuitry checked carefully at each stage.

Even when the instruments are operational, the calibration is painstaking. Every part of every detector must be tested and its response fully characterized. For science, it is extremely important to know how sensitive the instruments are and to be aware of the variations and anomalies in the recorded data. In short, we need to know what signals can be attributed to the instruments to figure out what signals come from the objects we observe throughout the universe.

Only when the instruments are fully operational will NASA be ready to unveil the early-release observations. I fully expect that these will be incredible new views of nebulae and galaxies, and can’t wait to see them.

But wait we must as SMOV runs its course. If things progress on schedule, the new images will be released in early September 2009.

The Magnificent Seven

May 24, 2009 by Mario Livio
The Hubble Space Telescope, after having been released from Space Shuttle Atlantis.

The Hubble Space Telescope, after having been released from Space Shuttle Atlantis.

“The Magnificent Seven” was a 1960 American western, about a group of gunmen that protect a Mexican village from bandits. The movie was an Americanized version of the film “The Seven Samurai,” by the legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa.

To me, the true magnificent seven are: Scott Altman, Greg Johnson, Megan McArthur, John Grunsfeld, Drew Feustel, Mike Massimino, and Mike Good — the crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis that has just finished servicing the Hubble Space Telescope.

Now that the Atlantis has landed safely, we can say without reservation that this has been the most amazing servicing mission to this unique telescope.

It is relatively easy to succeed when everything is going according to plan. This crew was like excellent tea — you don’t know how strong it is until you put it into boiling water! These astronauts overcame every unexpected difficulty, and they succeeded in making Hubble the best it has ever been.

In the movie “The Magnificent Seven,” one of the gunmen expresses his admiration for a shot taken by one of his friends, exclaiming: “Ah, that was the greatest shot I’ve ever seen.”

I strongly believe that Hubble’s greatest shot of the universe is still to come. And it will come because of the work of the magnificent seven.

It Takes an Institute

May 21, 2009 by Rachel Osten

Hi. I’m Rachel Osten, and I’m an astronomer here at the Space Telescope Science Institute. In this blog, I’d like to share with you some of the “behind the scenes” activities that astronomers do here at the institute. 

It really does “take a village” to run Hubble. Our village is the Space Telescope Science Institute, located in an unassuming building on the Johns Hopkins University campus. The scientists and engineers here all share the same goal of ensuring that Hubble produces top quality science; each of us has our own part to play in making sure that happens.

There is a definite level of excitement at the institute right now, as we all eagerly watch the activities of the astronauts. At work on Friday, many offices had a Web browser open to NASA’s webcasting, to watch the astronaut’s activities high above us. You could hear the voices of the astronauts and the folks at Mission Control in Houston floating through the halls, which made walking down the hall to get some coffee an “out of this world” experience. The auditorium, normally reserved for scientific talks, was broadcasting the servicing mission on NASA TV, as were the TVs in the cafeteria. It was hard not to notice that the tension level had gone up, and the brief “hiccups” that occurred on Friday were discussed at informal gatherings, as were congratulations to the members of the instrument team that had a successful installation.

As I write this, the astronauts are installing one of the instruments that I work on; the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS). Tomorrow the astronauts will repair another instrument, the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS), which I have used for my own research. It is a wonder to see in real-time the astronauts working on these instruments, and to feel the connection between their activities high up in space, and my own here on the ground. 

The astronauts are the most visible part of the repair and installation of Hubble’s cameras, but there are many activities before and after the astronauts’ servicing mission that are needed to make sure that scientists can make the best use of Hubble. Although the servicing mission lasts about 10 days, it will take most of the summer to check out the instruments. Having observed some test data from COS, I am eagerly waiting for the opportunity to get my hands dirty seeing what the “real” data looks like.

Servicing Mission 4: The Ultimate Reality Show?

May 20, 2009 by Frank Summers
Mission astronauts refurbish and upgrade the telescope.

Mission astronauts refurbish and upgrade the telescope.

On May 13, 2009, the Space Shuttle Atlantis slowly approached the Hubble Space Telescope. Hundreds of my colleagues and I were packed into the auditorium at the Space Telescope Science Institute, watching the live feed on NASA TV. I was posting to Twitter (I am @franksummers) and following the live feed of other folks’ postings (called tweets) about NASA and Hubble.

During the rendezvous with Hubble, the tweet stream became a flood. More than one tweet per second flowed across my laptop screen. People were not just watching the event, they were enthralled by it. Post after post was filled with excitement and declared their newfound addiction to this unfolding real-time, real-life drama.

Could it be that the Hubble Servicing Mission was the ultimate reality show?

Personally, I am not a fan of reality television. That genre seems dominated by deliberately contrived situations and casting choices intended to manufacture conflict. Over-the-top emotional responses are the standard, and that just isn’t reality. Even the talent shows seem to spend all their time developing the characters of their contestants and judges, and not enough time on the performances.

By the standards of today’s reality television, NASA TV fails in just about every category. There is a large cast, but the characters work together and avoid conflict. Problems arise, but there is no emotional outpouring, just level-headed commentary. Character development is at a minimum, with coverage entirely focused on completing the assigned tasks. In addition, there are long lulls of slow-to-no action, the lighting is harsh and always changing, and the video signal can disappear for minutes.

How could this be gripping entertainment? First, because it is truly extraordinary. And second because it is, in fact, reality.

Our space program puts these men and women into dangerous situations, but with the noble goal of enhancing our scientific knowledge of the universe. The astronauts and the ground support are exceptional and highly skilled people. The environment of space is unforgiving, the tasks require painstaking care, and several of the Hubble repairs had never been attempted. These are our best and brightest, working together in difficult circumstances to accomplish the incredible. It motivates and inspires the audience to the ideals of the human experience.

And if that is not the ultimate reality show, then it should be. My thanks to the crew of STS-125, mission control, and all of NASA for the past week and a half of genuine, enthralling, and amazing television.

The First Day

May 19, 2009 by Mario Livio

I am sure that many of you are familiar with the phrase: “Today is the first day in the rest of your life.”

Well, today is truly the first day in the rest of Hubble’s life. The telescope was released from the space shuttle this morning. And just as the above phrase is supposed to motivate you to pursue new ideas, to set new goals for yourself, and to forget all past mishaps, the new phase in Hubble’s life promises to be at least as exciting as the past 19 years. 

Hubble is currently equipped with the largest complement of functioning instruments it has ever had, and it is expected to continue observing for at least five more years. 

Servicing Mission 4 has not been just another servicing mission. This was the first mission in which elaborate repairs to existing instruments have been successfully attempted. This was also the first mission in which a major obstacle (the removal of a stubborn handle) has been overcome simply by brute force.

According to current planning, SM4 may also be the very last servicing mission to Hubble (except perhaps for the mission to attach a propulsion module that will direct Hubble into the ocean).

At times like this you cannot help but be reminded of the fact that a book entitled “1000 Events that Shaped the World” lists the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope as one of those events. The entry for the launch (at #977) shares the same page with the entries for the first successful gene therapy on a human, and the first e-mail. Was the launch of Hubble as important as those events?

I think it was. Gene therapy and email have undoubtedly changed our lives. Hubble has expanded our horizons.

Miracle Workers in Space

May 18, 2009 by Mario Livio
STIS Repair

Massimino and Good repair the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph.

Anybody who has ever tried one of those do-it-yourself jobs that require more than four screws knows just how frustrating those can be. Well, how about a job that involves 111 screws, which has to be carried out while wearing heavy gloves, in outer space?

In repairing the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS), this is precisely what astronauts Mike Massimino and Mike Good achieved on Sunday. And if that wasn’t enough, their incredible feat followed on the heels of yet another miracle: the repair of the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS).

The ACS repair was considered by many to be the most difficult – if not impossible – task of Servicing Mission 4. In fact, this repair was regarded as so challenging that only one part of it was scheduled for the third space walk. Yet astronauts John Grunsfeld and Drew Feustel completed the full task in record time. And they made it look easy!

When miracles occur twice in a row, you have to consider the possibility that these are not miracles at all, and that other explanations exist. This is indeed the case here. The incredible achievements by the astronauts on board the Atlantis Space Shuttle simply reflect the wonderful preparatory work by literally thousands of people.

Scientists, engineers and astronaut trainers designed the new instruments, designed the tools for the astronauts to use, and trained the astronauts for this difficult mission. The astronauts themselves spent many months in training for this difficult mission. When you have an army of bright minds and skillful hands working together – “miracles” happen.

When in Space, Nothing is Routine

May 15, 2009 by Mario Livio
WFPC2 bolt

During the first of five spacewalks, astronauts Grunsfeld and Feustel remove WFPC 2.

When astronauts John Grunsfeld and Drew Feustel started their first spacewalk to service the Hubble Space Telescope today, I was worried only about one thing — the installation of the Science Instrument Control and Data Handling (SI C&DH) unit. After all, this was supposed to be the real “brain surgery” in space. The SI C&DH unit controls all the flow of information between the instruments and the computer, and without it the telescope cannot function at all. The unit contains two identical sides for redundancy, but in the existing unit one side stopped operating last fall. NASA decided therefore to replace the unit with a new one, to regain the redundancy. Here exactly, however, was my concern. When you take out something that works and replace it by something new, how can you be sure that the new one will actually work? As it turned out, the replacement of the SI C&DH proceeded smoothly like magic. The problem came from an entirely unexpected direction. In order to install the new Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC 3), the astronauts had first to remove the old “work horse” on the telescope — the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC 2). For the replacement to take place, the astronauts had to disengage a particular bolt on a latch known as the “A-latch.” Sounds easy, right? Well, when it comes to a bolt in space that hasn’t been touched since 1993 surprises can happen. The astronauts had to change both a number of tools and procedures before the stubborn bolt gave way. I never thought that I would hear such an outburst of applause from my scientist colleagues just to celebrate the release of one bolt!

A Moment for the History Books

May 13, 2009 by Mario Livio
SM4 Launch

Space Shuttle Atlantis and crew head toward a rendezvous with the Hubble Telescope, May 11, 2009.

You could see it only for about a minute, and then it disappeared above the clouds. And yet, what an important minute that was!

Packed into that minute were the results of the hard work of thousands, and the emotions of millions.

I am talking, of course, about the launch of the shuttle Atlantis to service the Hubble Space Telescope.

I was fortunate enough to watch the launch from the press site at the Kennedy Space Center. When the countdown came to zero, and you could see the burst of flames and smoke, I could not stop the tears from running down my face. We have been eagerly awaiting this moment since the last Hubble servicing in 2002.

You may remember that following the Columbia accident, NASA decided to cancel any further servicing of Hubble, because of the perceived risk.

The public reaction was unbelievable. At the Space Telescope Science Institute, which conducts the Hubble science program, we were receiving letters from nine-year-old school girls who wanted to donate their lunch money to “save the Hubble.”

Fortunately NASA decided to conduct a more rigorous risk analysis, and in 2006 the NASA Administrator Mike Griffin announced the resurrection of the SM4 servicing mission.

All of that ran through my mind as I heard the deafening noise of the shuttle engines, and watched the enormous fiery tail behind the shuttle. The final phase in the life of this incredible telescope has begun. How appropriate, I thought, that this should happen exactly in the year in which we are celebrating 400 years to Galileo Galilei’s first observations of the heavens with a telescope.

Humans, and Their Place in the Universe

May 6, 2009 by Mario Livio
Barred Spiral Galaxy NGC 1300

Barred Spiral Galaxy NGC 1300

I am Mario Livio, an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), and Head of the Institute’s Office of Public Outreach. I have been at STScI since 1991.

In this very informal blog, I would like to share with you some of my thoughts on a variety of scientific, cultural, and educational matters. In particular, I would like to present science as a natural part of the human intellectual endeavor.

We are now only a few days away from the next Servicing Mission to the Hubble Space Telescope (currently scheduled for May 11, 2009). This fact has provoked in my mind the following thought, which at first blush appears to be somewhat disturbing.

Ever since the sixteenth century, we seem to find that the place and role of humans in the universe have been continuously diminishing. Copernicus showed us that the Earth is not at the center of the solar system. The astronomer Harlow Shapley demonstrated that the solar system is not at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. Astronomer Edwin Hubble discovered that many other galaxies exist – in fact, observations with the Hubble Space Telescope, named in his honor, indicate that there are some 200 billion galaxies in the observable universe.

Recent observations of the cosmic microwave background show that even the matter we are made of constitutes only about 4% of the energy of the universe, and some speculative theories of the cosmos propose that even our entire universe may be just one member of an infinite ensemble of universes. Should we be depressed by our apparent insignificance in the grand scheme of things?

I don’t think so, for the following reason: Note that every single step in which the human physical presence appears to have been reduced, has actually been triggered BY A HUMAN DISCOVERY!

It was Copernicus – a human – who discovered that the Earth is not at the center of the solar system; it was Hubble – another human – who discovered that our Milky Way Galaxy is nothing special, and so on. In other words, the human mind has been not only very central, but also absolutely essential, to this process.

So while the human physical presence may not be very relevant for the cosmos at large, the human mind is certainly very relevant for our understanding of this cosmos.