Astronauts from the space shuttle Atlantis went on their third space walk Saturday to repair the Hubble space telescope's camera and install new equipment. Guest host Rebecca Roberts talks about how the Hubble has impacted the world of astronomy with astronomer Dave Rodrigues, also known as the AstroWizard.
REBECCA ROBERTS, host:
Three hundred and fifty miles above your head today, astronauts from the Space Shuttle Atlantis were on their third space walk. Their task, repair the camera on the Hubble Space Telescope and install new observation equipment. With help from the Hubble, astronomers have explored many things about our universe, from black holes at the center of galaxies to how our galaxy was born. Hubble highlights today on Science out of the Box.
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With us to discuss the Hubble's greatest hits is Dave Rodrigues, better known as the AstroWizard, at least to kids in the San Francisco Bay Area. This is a guy who puts on a pointy wizard hat and sets up his telescope on street corners just to share his enthusiasm for astronomy. He's also a lecturer and director of the Eastbay Astronomical Society in Oakland, California.
Mr. DAVE RODRIGUES (Lecturer and Director, Eastbay Astronomical Society): Hi, Rebecca. And don't forget, I do explosions and magic as well.
ROBERTS: So we're here today to talk about the Hubble's greatest contributions to science. One, of course, is helping scientists figure out something called the Hubble Constant. What is that?
Mr. RODRIGUES: Yes. Well, the Hubble Constant is the rate of expansion that we see as we look further and further out into space.
ROBERTS: And how did the Hubble telescope help us figure that out?
Mr. RODRIGUES: Well, the Hubble has measured the distance to the farthest supernova we've ever seen out in a galaxy that is three and a half billion light years away. And by measuring that standard candle, that sort of standard distance, we're able to measure everything else in the universe. It was an extremely important measurement. And by using that, we were able to determine the Hubble Constant, and by doing that, we were able to determine the age of the universe. But, by the way, which is thirteen billion seven hundred million years plus or minus two hundred million years.
ROBERTS: You know, so much of our sort of knowledge and affinity for astronomy comes from popular culture. So this is for fans of the movies "Armageddon" or "Deep Impact."
Mr. RODRIGUES: Yes.
ROBERTS: I understand the Hubble has helped show what happens when an object collides with a planet.
Mr. RODRIGUES: It's not very pleasant Rebecca.
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Are you sure you want me to tell you about this?
ROBERTS: Well, in the interest of science.
Mr. RODRIGUES: Okay, in the interest of science. Maybe we should warn all the parents to have their children leave the room. Yes. In 1994, a comet collided with Jupiter, Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, and the Hubble Space Telescope provided these marvelous - the best images we have of the collision of this comet. It was called a string of pearls comet. And it broke up into over 22 pieces and each piece collided with Jupiter, and each explosion was approximately the size of the Earth.
ROBERTS: The images that Hubble sends back have been so incredible. Do you think...
Mr. RODRIGUES: Yes.
ROBERTS: ...just those pictures have changed the way we think about the scope of our universe?
Mr. RODRIGUES: Oh, I know they have. You know, I must talk to tens of thousands of kids every year and I incorporate Hubble images in all of my programs. And one of the most rewarding things I get is to listen to the involuntary gasps of people and children when they see these images and when they see some other images that they're not familiar with. The most famous Hubble image, for example, is that famous picture of the Hubble, of the Eagle nebula. When they look at that image, I want them to find the smallest dot they can find in that image.
That dot is the size of our solar system. In that picture, you can see baby solar systems that are in the process of being born. There's actually one star that is just turned on in the lower right side of that image and it is just gorgeous. And it just - to see something like that and to think that we are the first generation to be able to understand these very profound processes that gave birth to us and to our civilization, I mean, this is what happened to us five billion years ago. Your atoms and my atoms were intermingled in this giant nebula in space and this is how we formed.
ROBERTS: That's Dave Rodrigues, the AstroWizard, joining us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Thanks, Dave.
Mr. RODRIGUES: Thank you. Keep looking up, Rebecca.
ROBERTS: You can see that Eagle nebula photo and many other Hubble hits at our website, npr.org.
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Spacewalking astronauts successfully replaced the Hubble Space Telescope's main camera, which has taken many of the telescope's most famous images, after wrestling with a stubborn bolt that refused to turn.
The camera was installed back in 1993 and didn't seem to want to come out. Mission Control told spacewalker Andrew Feustel to go ahead and use some elbow grease to try and force the bolt free, even if that meant he might break it.
After all, if the bolt wouldn't cooperate, astronauts wouldn't be able to swap out Hubble's old camera and install a more powerful version, a chore that's one of the top priorities of this 11-day, high-flying repair mission, 350 miles above Earth.
"OK, here we go," said Feustel, as he worked on the bolt. After a moment of suspense, he announced, "I think I got it."
Later, he slid out the old camera, which is as big as a baby grand piano, and worked with fellow spacewalker John Grunsfeld to install the new one.
The first images taken with the new camera are expected to be unveiled in late summer.
The old camera will come home on space shuttle Atlantis, and the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum has expressed an interest in displaying it. That's because the camera famously helped to save Hubble, after problems with the telescope's primary mirror were discovered in 1990. Engineers on the ground modified this spare camera so that its optics would compensate for the telescope's flaws, and when it was installed, Hubble went from being a national disgrace to a triumph in space.
During their spacewalk, Feustel and Grunsfeld also swapped out the telescope's data handling unit, which processes science data so it can be sent to the ground. Part of that computer failed just weeks before space shuttle Atlantis was originally scheduled to blast off last fall, and NASA delayed the mission so engineers could prepare a replacement.
Grunsfeld also installed a ring-like mechanism onto the telescope that will allow a future spacecraft to latch on to Hubble at the end of its life and pull it out of orbit so that it will fall toward the Pacific Ocean.
Working on Hubble as it rested in Atlantis' open payload bay was nothing new for Grunsfeld, who has been a Hubble repairman on two previous shuttle missions. Still, he seemed elated when he first opened the hatch and floated outside for the mission's full spacewalk.
"This is fantastic," exclaimed Grunsfeld as he exited the hatch in his bulky spacesuit, telling Feustel, a first-time spacewalker, "You're going to love it, Drew."
Scientists on the ground have been equally enthusiastic. When Atlantis made its first close approach to Hubble on Wednesday and beamed television images of the bus-sized telescope back down, "there were audible gasps of elation," said Jon Morse, head of NASA's astrophysics division, who was in a control room with other scientists who have worked on the Hubble program.
"This was truly a wonderful sight, after seven years or so since the last servicing mission, to see the space telescope," said Morse.
Astronauts have four more spacewalks to go. Later in the mission, they'll attempt some tricky repairs that require undoing dozens of screws and opening up two instruments that were never designed to be fixed in space.
NASA hopes that this final servicing mission will keep the venerable telescope going until at least 2014. After that, there will be no more repairs, as NASA will turn its attention to building newer space telescopes.