Taking the long view
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 5, 2002
The newly updated Hubble space telescope is peering deeper into the universe and further back in time than anyone but the most starry-eyed astrophysicist might have dreamed. After a daring repair by astronauts in March, the Hubble's new Advanced Camera for Surveys is sending back ever more spectacular pictures.
A colliding galaxy dubbed Tadpole by NASA scientists spins like a fiery disk against a backdrop of 6,000 more galaxies and trailing a "tail" of stars and gas 280,000 light years long. In another picture, a billowy mass of gas and dust called Cone Nebula gives eerie form to nothingness. At its full range, the new telescope should be able to "enter the "twilight zone' period when galaxies were just beginning to form out of the blackness. . .," said Holland Ford, the lead scientist for the project.
The Hubble got off to a rocky start, but advancing technology and human ingenuity have saved the day. With the nonchalance of completing a weekend project, two astronauts fastened the space telescope to a workbench in the space shuttle Columbia's cargo bay and replaced a number of failing parts. Astronaut John Grunsfeld's space suit began leaking coolant just before a scheduled space walk to work on the telescope. He calmly changed suits and spent 4 1/2 hours in space, replacing the Hubble's power unit.
The pictures being beamed back prove that the mission was worth the risk. "There is no doubt that the advanced camera will provide humanity with the deepest view of the universe that has ever been made," said Ford.
What humanity will do with that information is another matter. But at a time when the inhabitants of this little orb called Earth need hope, the Hubble has at least given us a reason to cast our eyes heavenward. Pictures of distant galaxies may not explain why human beings wage endless war or why we abuse the life-giving bounty of nature. But the Hubble project does show us that if we put our minds to it, we can rise to our greatest challenges.
Maybe what the pictures beamed from the Hubble space telescope should tell us is this: We are lucky to be a part of this great miracle, and we should start acting as though we deserve it.
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