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Hubble Space Telescope



Launched: April 25, 1990
Launch Vehicle: Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-31)
Spacecraft Mass: 11,600 kg

Overview of the Hubble Space Telescope

The Hubble Space Telescope is a coooperative program of the European Space Agency (ESA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to operate a long-lived space-based observatory for the benefit of the international astronomical community. HST is an observatory first dreamt of in the 1940s, designed and built in the 1970s and 80s, and operational only in the 1990s. Since its preliminary inception, HST was designed to be a different type of mission for NASA -- a permanent space-based observatory. To accomplish this goal and protect the spacecraft against instrument and equipment failures, NASA had always planned on regular servicing missions. Hubble has special grapple fixtures, 76 handholds, and stabilized in all three axes. HST is a 2.4-meter reflecting telescope which was deployed in low-Earth orbit (600 kilometers) by the crew of the space shuttle Discovery (STS-31) on 25 April 1990.

Responsibility for conducting and coordinating the science operations of the Hubble Space Telescope rests with the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) on the Johns Hopkins University Homewood Campus in Baltimore, Maryland. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of University for Research in Astronomy, Incorporated (AURA).

HST's current complement of science instruments include two cameras, two spectrographs, and fine guidance sensors (primarily used for astrometric observations). Because of HST's location above the Earth's atmosphere, these science instruments can produce high resolution images of astronomical objects. Ground-based telescopes can seldom provide resolution better than 1.0 arc-seconds, except momentarily under the very best observing conditions. HST's resolution is about 10 times better, or 0.1 arc-seconds.

When originally planned in 1979, the Large Space Telescope program called for return to Earth, refurbishment, and relaunch every 5 years, with on-orbit servicing every 2.5 years. Hardware lifetime and reliability requirements were based on that 2.5-year interval between servicing missions. In 1985, contamination and structural loading concerns associated with return to Earth aboard the shuttle eliminated the concept of ground return from the program. NASA decided that on-orbit servicing might be adequate to maintain HST for its 15-year design life. A three year cycle of on-orbit servicing was adopted. The first HST servicing mission in December 1993 was an enormous success. Future servicing missions are tentatively planned for March 1997, mid-1999, and mid-2002. Contingency flights could still be added to the shuttle manifest to perform specific tasks that cannot wait for the next regularly scheduled servicing mission (and/or required tasks that were not completed on a given servicing mission).

The five years since the launch of HST in 1990 have been momentous, with the discovery of spherical aberration and the search for a practical solution. The STS-61 (Endeavour) mission of December 1993 fully obviated the effects of spherical aberration and fully restored the functionality of HST.

The Science Instruments

Wide Field/Planetary Camera 2

The original Wide Field/Planetary Camera (WF/PC1) was changed out and displaced by WF/PC2 on the STS-61 shuttle mission in December 1993. WF/PC2 was a spare instrument developed in 1985 by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

WF/PC2 is actually four cameras. The relay mirrors in WF/PC2 are spherically aberrated to correct for the spherically aberrated primary mirror of the observatory. (HST's primary mirror is 2 microns too flat at the edge, so the corrective optics within WF/PC2 are too high by that same amount.)

The "heart" of WF/PC2 consists of an L-shaped trio of wide-field sensors and a smaller, high resolution ("planetary") camera tucked in the square's remaining corner.

Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement

COSTAR is not a science instrument; it is a corrective optics package that displaced the High Speed Photometer during the first servicing mission to HST. COSTAR is designed to optically correct the effects of the primary mirror's aberration on the three remaining scientific instruments: Faint Object Camera (FOC), Faint Object Spectrograph (FOS), and the Goddard High Resolution Spectrograph (GHRS).

Faint Object Camera

The Faint Object Camera is built by the European Space Agency. It is the only instrument to utilize the full spatial resolving power of HST.

There are two complete detector system of the FOC. Each uses an image intensifier tube to produce an image on a phosphor screen that is 100,000 times brighter than the light received. This phosphor image is then scanned by a sensitive electron-bombarded silicon (EBS) television camera. This system is so sensitive that objects brighter than 21st magnitude must be dimmed by the camera's filter systems to avoid saturating the detectors. Even with abroad-band filter, the brightest object which can be accurately measured is 20th magnitude.

The FOC offers three different focal ratios: f/48, f/96, and f/288 on a standard television picture format. The f/48 image measures 22 X 22 arc-seconds and yields resolution (pixel size) of 0.043 arc-seconds. The f/96 mode provides an image of 11 X 11 arc-seconds on each side and a resolution of 0.022 arc-seconds. The f/288 field of view is 3.6 X 3.6 arc- seconds square, with resolution down to 0.0072 arc-seconds.

Faint Object Spectrograph

A spectrograph spreads out the light gathered by a telescope so that it can be analyzed to determine such properties of celestial objects as chemical composition and abundances, temperature, radial velocity, rotational velocity, and magnetic fields. The Faint Object Spectrograph (FOS) exmaines fainter objects than the HRS, and can study these objects across a much wider spectral range -- from the UV (1150 Angstroms) through the visible red and the near-IR (8000 Angstroms).

The FOS uses two 512-element Digicon sensors (light intensifiers) to light. The "blue" tube is sensitive from 1150 to 5500 Angstroms (UV to yellow). The "red" tube is sensitive from 1800 to 8000 Angstroms (longer UV through red). Light can enter the FOS through any of 11 different apertures from 0.1 to about 1.0 arc-seconds in diameter. There are also two occulting devices to block out light from the center of an object while allowing the light from just outside the center to pass on through. This could allow analysis of the shells of gas around red giant stars of the faint galaxies around a quasar.

The FOS has two modes of operation PP low resolution and high resolution. At low resolution, it can reach 26th magnitude in one hour with a resolving power of 250. At high resolution, the FOS can reach only 22nd magnitude in an hour (before S/N becomes a problem), but the resolving power is increased to 1300.

Goddard High Resolution Spectrograph

The High Resolution Spectrograph also separates incoming light into its spectral components so that the composition, temperature, motion, and other chemical and physical properties of the objects can be analyzed. The HRS contrasts with the FOS in that it concentrates entirely on UV spectroscopy and trades the extremely faint objects for the ability to analyze very fine spectral detail. Like the FOS, the HRS uses two 521-channel Digicon electronic light detectors, but the detectors of the HRS are deliberately blind to visible light. One tube is sensitive from 1050 to 1700 Angstroms; while the other is sensitive from 1150 to 3200 Angstroms.

The HRS also has three resolution modes: low, medium, and high. "Low resolution" for the HRS is 2000 -- higher than the best resolution available on the FOS. Examining a feature at 1200 Angstroms, the HRS can resolve detail of 0.6 Angstroms and can examine objects down to 19th magnitude. At medium resolution of 20,000; that same spectral feature at 1200 Angstroms can be seen in detail down to 0.06 Angstroms, but the object must be brighter than 16th magnitude to be studied. High resolution for the HRS is 100,000; allowing a spectral line at 1200 Angstroms to be resolved down to 0.012 Angstroms. However, "high resolution" can be applied only to objects of 14th magnitude or brighter. The HRS can also discriminate between variation in light from ojbects as rapid as 100 milliseconds apart.

Mission Operations and Observations

Although HST operates around the clock, not all of its time is spent observing. Each orbit lasts about 95 minutes, with time allocated for housekeeping functions and for observations. "Housekeeping" functions includes turning the telescope to acquire a new target, or avoid the Sun or Moon, switching communications antennas and data transmission modes, receiving command loads and downlinking data, calibrating and similar activities.

When STScI completes its master observing plan, the schedule is forwarded to Goddard's Space Telescope Operations Control Center (STOCC), where the science and housekeeping plans are merged into a detailed operations schedule. Each event is translated into a series of commands to be sent to the onboard computers. Computer loads are uplinked several times a day to keep the telescope operating efficiently.

When possible two scientific instruments are used simultaneously to observe adjacent target regions of the sky. For example, while a spectrograph is focused on a chosen star or nebula, the WF/PC (pronounced "wiff-pik") can image a sky region offset slightly from the main viewing target. During observations the Fine Guidance Sensors (FGS) track their respective guide stars to keep the telescope pointed steadily at the right target.

In an astronomer desires to be present during the observation, there is a console at STScI and another at the STOCC, where monitors display images or other data as the observations occurs. Some limited real-time commanding for target acquisition or filter changing is performed at these stations, if the observation program has been set up to allow for it, but spontaneous control is not possible.

Engineering and scientific data from HST, as well as uplinked operational commands, are transmitted through the Tracking Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) system and its companion ground station at White Sands, New Mexico. Up to 24 hours of commands can be stored in the onboard computers. Data can be broadcast from HST to the ground stations immediately or stored on tape and downlinked later.

The observer on the ground can examine the "raw" images and other data within a few minutes for a quick-look analysis. Within 24 hours, GSFC formats the data for delivery to the STScI. STScI is responsible for data processing (calibration, editing, distribution, and maintenance of the data for the scientific community).

Competition is keen for HST observing time. Only one of every ten proposals is accepted. This unique space-based observatory is operated as an international research center; as a resource for astronomers world-wide.

The Hubble Space Telescope is the unique instrument of choice for the upcoming Saturn ring-plane crossings. The data gleaned from these events will be invaluable in support of the Cassini mission scheduled to arrive at Saturn in 2004. The next opportunity for Earthbounders to view Saturn "ringless" will not come for another 43 years in 2038-39.

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Ron Baalke