DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Twenty-five years ago this morning, NASA launched a telescope into space.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Three, two, one and liftoff of the space shuttle Discovery with the Hubble Space Telescope, our window on the universe.
GREENE: Since that launch, the Hubble Space Telescope has made more than a million observations. It has spied distant galaxies and exploding stars and changed the way we think about our place in the universe. Here's NPR's Geoff Brumfiel.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Behind a locked door at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, a team of engineers keeps watch over Hubble. It looks like any office - desks and computers - but there's a tiny animated map on the wall with a little cartoon telescope tracking Hubble's path. Dave Haskins is mission operations manager.
DAVE HASKINS: Hubble is traveling over Africa - southern Africa right now.
BRUMFIEL: Hubble has several billion miles on the odometer, and, like any high mileage vehicle, things go wrong. If there's a problem, Haskins gets a text message. He's even got a ring tone to alert him.
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HASKINS: Pretty annoying, right? So - yeah, there we go.
BRUMFIEL: A computer on Hubble froze in October, briefly shutting it down. But today, it's running smoothly and that's good news. Jennifer Wiseman is Hubble's senior scientist.
JENNIFER WISEMAN: We're doing everything from looking at objects in the solar system - trying to understand, for example, Jupiter - to looking at things far beyond our solar system. We are studying how galaxies evolve and change over cosmic history. We're even seeing some of the most distant galaxies we've ever detected.
BRUMFIEL: Hubble's received upgrades over the years, but the real reason it's still so powerful is its location.
JASON KALIRAI: So you'll only hear an astronomer say this, but the air that we breathe - it sucks (laughter). It makes our images blurry, right?
BRUMFIEL: Jason Kalirai is at the Space Telescope Science Institute, which helps manage Hubble's many projects. Staring at space from Earth is kind of like trying to look out from the bottom of a swimming pool.
KALIRAI: This is actually why we put telescopes on top of mountains. It's not to get closer to the stars. It's to get above the Earth's atmosphere. But nothing competes with actually being above the entire atmosphere and observing from space where you can get crystal clear images.
BRUMFIEL: Hubble's crystal clear images are free and available online, and that's another reason it's so well-known. Think of any breathtaking image of space, like a spiral-armed galaxy, chances are Hubble took it. For Kalirai, one image really stands out.
KALIRAI: There have been a few times in our history that we have completely transformed our understanding of the basic, fundamental question, what is our place in the universe?
BRUMFIEL: In December of 1995, the telescope stared for 10 days at a tiny patch of apparently empty sky. The image it produced, called the Deep Field, showed more than a thousand undiscovered galaxies. It made researchers realize Earth's even smaller than we thought.
KALIRAI: We're sitting on a rock now orbiting a star, and that star is one star out of a hundred billion in our galaxy. But the Deep Field tells us that that galaxy is one galaxy out of a hundred billion in the universe. And so I think Hubble's contribution is that we're not very special. (Laughter).
BRUMFIEL: (Laughter). That's kind of a bummer.
KALIRAI: (Laughter). No, I think it's exciting. It gives us a lot more to learn about. It gives us - you know, if we're not that special, you can continue to ask that question - right? - what's next?
BRUMFIEL: Kalirai is lead scientist on an even bigger space telescope that will launch in 2018. As for what's next for the Hubble - that's uncertain. At some point, it will stop working. But researchers hope that's still many years away. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.
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