Hubble Space Telescope Turns 30, Doubling Life Expectancy

Apr 24, 2020

The Hubble Space Telescope was designed to last 15 years. On April 24, it marks 30 years in space.

About the size of a school bus, Hubble orbits the Earth capturing images of deep space. It was first conceived in the 1940s as the Large Space Telescope. Work began in 1979 and it was renamed in honor of American astronomer Edwin Hubble in 1983.

Since launching on April 24, 1990, Hubble has taken more than 1.4 million images, or observations.

The Hubble Space Telescope is photographed at the moment of release from space shuttle Discovery on April 25, 1990 as part of STS-31, the Space Shuttle's mission to deploy the observatory.
Credit Courtesy of NASA

"It really was this revolutionary thing, this gigantic telescope up above the atmosphere, up above the clouds, that could image the farthest things in the universe," explains Cincinnati Observatory Astronomer Dean Regas and co-host of WVXU's Looking Up podcast. "It's just been an incredible journey."

Astronauts have repaired and upgraded Hubble five times, according to NASA, including "giving Hubble 'glasses' to fix a flaw in its mirror that made the images blurry."

All maintenance is now being done remotely using computers to make adjustments, Regas says. The telescope is powered by solar panels. It's uncertain how long the telescope will continue operating since it's already surpassed its life expectancy. Regas says the biggest concern is the sensors that keep the telescope aligned could fail.

A Hubble Space Telescope image of the giant, petulant star Eta Carinae 7,500 light-years away.
Credit NASA, ESA, and N. Smith (University of Arizona), and J. Morse (BoldlyGo Institute)

For Regas, Hubble's greatest achievement are the pictures it's generated.

"These are the iconic images of our generation of space. We look at some of these pictures and they're just astounding. The pictures of nebulas showing all these clouds of gas and dust swirling around. Newborn stars that we're imaging.

"And the galaxy pictures, the pictures of the farthest things in the universe - what they call the Hubble deep field where it can take this unbelievably long exposure of space and pick out these galaxies that have never been seen before."

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has produced its largest mosaic image ever of the Triangulum galaxy (M33). This image spans 14,500 light-years. It was created from images taken between Feb. 2017 and Feb. 2018, and was released Jan. 7, 2019.
Credit NASA, ESA, and M. Durbin, J. Dalcanton, and B.F. Williams (University of Washington)

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, houses the Hubble Space Telescope Operations Project. Hubble itself is about 340 miles above the Earth and orbits the Earth about 15 times per day, each orbit taking approximately 95 minutes.

While scientists and NASA experts take up much of Hubble's time, Regas says anyone can apply to get time on the telescope. People are welcome to submit and help select proposals to investigate. "You don't have to be an astronomer ... You just have to have a really good idea," he adds. "It has to be unique and something that the Hubble is specially equipped to do."

Hubble Fun Facts

According to NASA:

  • Looking Back Through Time: Hubble has peered back to capture light from distant galaxies that has taken more than 13.4 billion years to reach us.
  • A Productive Machine: Hubble has taken more than 1.4 million observations that astronomers have used to write over 17,000 scientific publications on topics such as planet, star and galaxy formation, dark matter, dark energy and black holes.
  • Space Mechanics: Astronauts repaired and upgraded Hubble five times in space, including giving Hubble 'glasses' to fix a flaw in its mirror that made the images blurry.
  • Science Bus: The Hubble Space Telescope is about the size of a school bus, roughly 43.5 feet long and 14 feet wide and weighs 27,000 pounds on Earth.
  • Around the World in 95 Minutes: Hubble travels 17,000 mph and completes one orbit around the Earth every 95 minutes, meaning it has made more than 166,000 orbits in its lifetime and has traveled over 4 billion miles.
  • Above the atmosphere: Hubble orbits 340 miles above the Earth's surface, outside of the distorting effects of our atmosphere. This allows us to look deeper into space and with greater clarity than we can with ground telescopes
  • Cultural Icon: From Star Trek and The Big Bang Theory episodes to music album covers and the clothes you wear, Hubble images are all around you!