April 5, 2020

Review: The Universe in a Mirror by Robert Zimmerman.

NASA is going back to visit and old friend, one more time.

As we gear up for the collective adventure of the final (?) shuttle mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope (HST),  The Universe in a Mirror: the Saga of the Hubble Space Telescope and the Visionaries Who built It by Robert Zimmerman serves as a fine look back at the history of the storied telescope, as well as a peek at where we might be headed. The tale of how Hubble came to be traces its origins back to past the dawn of the space age. Although much press, both good and bad, has been written on Hubble, much of its origin has never been told. The tale the author weaves in Universe is a fascinating look into the politics of NASA and how the telescope evolved over the periods of successive administrations. The idea was first given life by Lyman Spitzer (of Spitzer Space Telescope fame) in the early 60′s, and after several false starts found its way into orbit aboard the Shuttle Discovery in 1990. Next year will be its 20th year in low Earth orbit, and in two decades, the telescope has revolutionized visual/and infrared astronomy. For example, when Shoemaker-Levy 9 impacted Jupiter in 1994, Hubble was and invaluable witness to this unprecedented event.

The author points out that such a versatile instrument is not the norm; most instruments launched are not general purpose but instead built to answer very specific questions and have a limited lifespan. Hubble has also had an indelible impact on the public; especially telling was the tale of then project manager Evan Richards talking to a group of school children in 1983. Upon writing the dates 1609 and 1985 on the blackboard, roughly half of the class instantly knew their significance: the year of Galileo’s first telescopic observations and the then scheduled launch of Hubble. (The Challenger disaster moved the date to 1990).  Pictures such as the Eagle Nebula and the Hubble Deep Field(s) may well be the defining images of our era.

Eagle Nebula video.

Of course, the HST garnered much negative publicity when it saw first light due to its flawed mirror. “The saga of the mirror was almost a Shakespearean tragedy,” The author notes. Still, much of the back story and the engineering breaks in the chain have never been told, and the story itself could be said to be a textbook case of accountability. When tested, the laser used to measure the mirror introduced a 1.3 mm error. Rather than question why the error occurred, a potentially costly and time consuming process, three washers were added as spacers!   (Fun fact: did you know a twin to the Hubble mirror was cast by Kodak and currently sits in the Smithsonian? This “demo mirror” has never been fully tested, but may well have a perfect figure! And it was even done with older technology!)

Eventually, Hubble overcame these obstacles to become our most valued eye on the universe. With any luck, next weeks’ servicing mission will extend Hubble out at least another five plus years, past the next decadal survey and (hopefully!) the formulation of a plan for a true replacement. The James Webb Space Telescope is often erroneously sited as a successor, although it’s designed to do work in the Infra-red and will be placed out of range of a possible servicing mission. As we peer further back into space and time, much of that visible light has shifted into the infrared part of the spectrum by the time it reaches us. The author also notes some of the problems facing a potential successor, such as a telescope based on the lunar far side, not the least of which would be a restricted view, and the presence of evilly abrasive lunar dust.

Doubtless, next week’s mission will bring Hubble back into public focus. It will also give us one last taste of what the Shuttle was originally envisioned to do; launch and service satellites. “Humanity has gotten a taste of what the universe looks like through good glasses,” the author noted in a recent interview. Hubble would be a tough loss, both to the scientific community and the human spirit. It should be noted that currently, Hubble is nearly inoperable now; this mission may come in the nick of time. Expect drama in orbit; the last four missions were all highly entertaining to watch via C-Span and NASA TV. A favorite Astroguyz moment was when astronaut Kathryn Thornton perched on the end of the Shuttles’ robotic arm held the enormous solar panel until sunrise to discard it safely. This last servicing mission will be the first servicing mission to Hubble to be conducted by the Atlantis orbiter. The last servicing mission in 2002 was to be the final successful mission of the Columbia orbiter which was tragically lost along with its crew on its next flight in 2003.

In the end, it all comes down to the science produced. Reading the book, I was amazed at the impact the Hubble had on a whole generation of astronomy PhDs. The author illustrates this by showing us some of the early circa 1940s images shot of the Eta Carinae homunculus. Astronomers new this was an intriguing object; compare these to Hubble’s vivid images on the center pages of the book.

The first Hubble repair and the installation of COSTAR came just in time for Nova Cygni in 1992, as well as the aftermath of supernova 1987a. If a much overdue galactic supernova or a potentially hazardous NEO becomes known, Hubble could prove its worth yet again. This is the telescope that just won’t die!

What isn’t generally appreciated but pointed out in The Universe in a Mirror is that Hubble has also virtually changed how NASA and the scientific community interfaces with the public as well as the trickle down technology that ensued. Today’s digital imaging technology owes a large part to its existence to technologies pioneered by Hubble. Images are now routinely made public immediately, and made accessible to arm chair scientists and the professional community via the Web, which barely existed when Hubble left Earth! Already, exoplanets have been spotted by combing through the Hubble archives. The era is nearly upon us when kids will discover supernovae before bedtime…

The Universe in a Mirror provides a perfect backdrop to the events that are about to unfold over the next few weeks. We would also recommend it as a classic study in getting a scientific project through from inception to operability, and the convoluted workings of space politics.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll be following the Hubble repairs and STS-125 at this site and Astro-twitter. We plan on attending the launch next week; the window is from May the 11th until the 13th, then another window opens up on the 22nd. We’ll also be posting possible sighting (or there lack of!) opportunities of both in the sky as the mission evolves, as well as a post devoted to the HubbleTop-stars program and its heritage and legacy. Stay tuned!


  1. [...] of the famed telescope. For a good back story to the film, check out last year’s review of The Universe in a Mirror. All look for Hubble in a sky near you via Space Weather and make the effort to see Hubble 3D. We [...]

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