Conception, design and aim
Proposals and precursors
Astronaut Owen Garriott works next to Skylab's manned solar space observatory, 1973
In 1923, Hermann Oberth—considered a father of modern rocketry, along with Robert H. Goddard and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky—published Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen ("The Rocket into Planetary Space"), which mentioned how a telescope could be propelled into Earth orbit by a rocket.
The history of the Hubble Space Telescope can be traced back as far as 1946, to the astronomer Lyman Spitzer's paper "Astronomical advantages of an extraterrestrial observatory". In it, he discussed the two main advantages that a space-based observatory would have over ground-based telescopes. First, the angular resolution (the smallest separation at which objects can be clearly distinguished) would be limited only by diffraction, rather than by the turbulence in the atmosphere, which causes stars to twinkle, known to astronomers as seeing. At that time ground-based telescopes were limited to resolutions of 0.5–1.0 arcseconds, compared to a theoretical diffraction-limited resolution of about 0.05 arcsec for a telescope with a mirror 2.5 m (8.2 ft) in diameter. Second, a space-based telescope could observe infrared and ultraviolet light, which are strongly absorbed by the atmosphere.
Spitzer devoted much of his career to pushing for the development of a space telescope. In 1962, a report by the US National Academy of Sciences recommended the development of a space telescope as part of the space program, and in 1965 Spitzer was appointed as head of a committee given the task of defining scientific objectives for a large space telescope.
Space-based astronomy had begun on a very small scale following World War II, as scientists made use of developments that had taken place in rocket technology. The first ultraviolet spectrum of the Sun was obtained in 1946, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched the Orbiting Solar Observatory (OSO) to obtain UV, X-ray, and gamma-ray spectra in 1962. An orbiting solar telescope was launched in 1962 by the United Kingdom as part of the Ariel space program, and in 1966 NASA launched the first Orbiting Astronomical Observatory (OAO) mission. OAO-1's battery failed after three days, terminating the mission. It was followed by OAO-2, which carried out ultraviolet observations of stars and galaxies from its launch in 1968 until 1972, well beyond its original planned lifetime of one year.
The OSO and OAO missions demonstrated the important role space-based observations could play in astronomy. In 1968, NASA developed firm plans for a space-based reflecting telescope with a mirror 3 m (9.8 ft) in diameter, known provisionally as the Large Orbiting Telescope or Large Space Telescope (LST), with a launch slated for 1979. These plans emphasized the need for manned maintenance missions to the telescope to ensure such a costly program had a lengthy working life, and the concurrent development of plans for the reusable Space Shuttle indicated that the technology to allow this was soon to become available.
Quest for funding
The continuing success of the OAO program encouraged increasingly strong consensus within the astronomical community that the LST should be a major goal. In 1970, NASA established two committees, one to plan the engineering side of the space telescope project, and the other to determine the scientific goals of the mission. Once these had been established, the next hurdle for NASA was to obtain funding for the instrument, which would be far more costly than any Earth-based telescope. The U.S. Congress questioned many aspects of the proposed budget for the telescope and forced cuts in the budget for the planning stages, which at the time consisted of very detailed studies of potential instruments and hardware for the telescope. In 1974, public spending cuts led to Congress deleting all funding for the telescope project.
In response a nationwide lobbying effort was coordinated among astronomers. Many astronomers met congressmen and senators in person, and large scale letter-writing campaigns were organized. The National Academy of Sciences published a report emphasizing the need for a space telescope, and eventually the Senate agreed to half of the budget that had originally been approved by Congress.
The funding issues led to something of a reduction in the scale of the project, with the proposed mirror diameter reduced from 3 m to 2.4 m, both to cut costs and to allow a more compact and effective configuration for the telescope hardware. A proposed precursor 1.5 m (4.9 ft) space telescope to test the systems to be used on the main satellite was dropped, and budgetary concerns also prompted collaboration with the European Space Agency. ESA agreed to provide funding and supply one of the first generation instruments for the telescope, as well as the solar cells that would power it, and staff to work on the telescope in the United States, in return for European astronomers being guaranteed at least 15% of the observing time on the telescope. Congress eventually approved funding of US$36 million for 1978, and the design of the LST began in earnest, aiming for a launch date of 1983. In 1983 the telescope was named after Edwin Hubble, who confirmed one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century made by Georges Lemaître that the universe is expanding.
Construction and engineering
Grinding of Hubble's primary mirror at Perkin-Elmer, March 1979
Once the Space Telescope project had been given the go-ahead, work on the program was divided among many institutions. Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) was given responsibility for the design, development, and construction of the telescope, while Goddard Space Flight Center was given overall control of the scientific instruments and ground-control center for the mission. MSFC commissioned the optics company Perkin-Elmer to design and build the Optical Telescope Assembly (OTA) and Fine Guidance Sensors for the space telescope. Lockheed was commissioned to construct and integrate the spacecraft in which the telescope would be housed.
Optical Telescope Assembly
Optically, the HST is a Cassegrain reflector of Ritchey–Chrétien design, as are most large professional telescopes. This design, with two hyperbolic mirrors, is known for good imaging performance over a wide field of view, with the disadvantage that the mirrors have shapes that are hard to fabricate and test. The mirror and optical systems of the telescope determine the final performance, and they were designed to exacting specifications. Optical telescopes typically have mirrors polished to an accuracy of about a tenth of the wavelength of visible light, but the Space Telescope was to be used for observations from the visible through the ultraviolet (shorter wavelengths) and was specified to be diffraction limited to take full advantage of the space environment. Therefore, its mirror needed to be polished to an accuracy of 10 nanometers (0.4 microinches), or about 1/65 of the wavelength of red light. On the long wavelength end, the OTA was not designed with optimum IR performance in mind—for example, the mirrors are kept at stable (and warm, about 15 °C) temperatures by heaters. This limits Hubble's performance as an infrared telescope.
The backup mirror, by Kodak; its inner support structure can be seen because it is not coated with a reflective surface
Perkin-Elmer intended to use custom-built and extremely sophisticated computer-controlled polishing machines to grind the mirror to the required shape. However, in case their cutting-edge technology ran into difficulties, NASA demanded that PE sub-contract to Kodak to construct a back-up mirror using traditional mirror-polishing techniques. (The team of Kodak and Itek also bid on the original mirror polishing work. Their bid called for the two companies to double-check each other's work, which would have almost certainly caught the polishing error that later caused such problems.) The Kodak mirror is now on permanent display at the National Air and Space Museum. An Itek mirror built as part of the effort is now used in the 2.4 m telescope at the Magdalena Ridge Observatory.
Construction of the Perkin-Elmer mirror began in 1979, starting with a blank manufactured by Corning from their ultra-low expansion glass. To keep the mirror's weight to a minimum it consisted of top and bottom plates, each one inch (25 mm) thick, sandwiching a honeycomb lattice. Perkin-Elmer simulated microgravity by supporting the mirror from the back with 130 rods that exerted varying amounts of force. This ensured that the mirror's final shape would be correct and to specification when finally deployed. Mirror polishing continued until May 1981. NASA reports at the time questioned Perkin-Elmer's managerial structure, and the polishing began to slip behind schedule and over budget. To save money, NASA halted work on the back-up mirror and put the launch date of the telescope back to October 1984. The mirror was completed by the end of 1981; it was washed using 2,400 US gallons (9,100 L) of hot, deionized water and then received a reflective coating of 65 nm-thick (2.6 μin) aluminum and a protective coating of 25 nm-thick (0.98 μin) magnesium fluoride.
The OTA, metering truss, and secondary baffle are visible in this image of Hubble during early construction.
Doubts continued to be expressed about Perkin-Elmer's competence on a project of this importance, as their budget and timescale for producing the rest of the OTA continued to inflate. In response to a schedule described as "unsettled and changing daily", NASA postponed the launch date of the telescope until April 1985. Perkin-Elmer's schedules continued to slip at a rate of about one month per quarter, and at times delays reached one day for each day of work. NASA was forced to postpone the launch date until March and then September 1986. By this time, the total project budget had risen to US$1.175 billion.
The spacecraft in which the telescope and instruments were to be housed was another major engineering challenge. It would have to withstand frequent passages from direct sunlight into the darkness of Earth's shadow, which would cause major changes in temperature, while being stable enough to allow extremely accurate pointing of the telescope. A shroud of multi-layer insulation keeps the temperature within the telescope stable and surrounds a light aluminum shell in which the telescope and instruments sit. Within the shell, a graphite-epoxy frame keeps the working parts of the telescope firmly aligned. Because graphite composites are hygroscopic, there was a risk that water vapor absorbed by the truss while in Lockheed's clean room would later be expressed in the vacuum of space; resulting in the telescope's instruments being covered by ice. To reduce that risk, a nitrogen gas purge was performed before launching the telescope into space.
While construction of the spacecraft in which the telescope and instruments would be housed proceeded somewhat more smoothly than the construction of the OTA, Lockheed still experienced some budget and schedule slippage, and by the summer of 1985, construction of the spacecraft was 30% over budget and three months behind schedule. An MSFC report said that Lockheed tended to rely on NASA directions rather than take their own initiative in the construction.
Computer systems and data processing
DF-224 in Hubble, before it was replaced in 1999
The two initial, primary computers on the HST were the 1.25 MHz DF-224 system, built by Rockwell Autonetics, which contained three redundant CPUs, and two redundant NSSC-1 (NASA Standard Spacecraft Computer, Model 1) systems, developed by Westinghouse and GSFC using diode–transistor logic (DTL). A co-processor for the DF-224 was added during Servicing Mission 1 in 1993, which consisted of two redundant strings of an Intel-based 80386 processor with an 80387 math co-processor. The DF-224 and its 386 co-processor were replaced by a 25 MHz Intel-based 80486 processor system during Servicing Mission 3A in 1999. The new computer is 20 times faster, with six times more memory, than the DF-224 it replaced. It increases throughput by moving some computing tasks from the ground to the spacecraft and saves money by allowing the use of modern programming languages.
Additionally, some of the science instruments and components had their own embedded microprocessor-based control systems. The MATs (Multiple Access Transponder) components, MAT-1 and MAT-2, utilize Hughes Aircraft CDP1802CD microprocessors. The Wide Field and Planetary Camera (WFPC) also utilized an RCA 1802 microprocessor (or possibly the older 1801 version). The WFPC-1 was replaced by the WFPC-2 during Servicing Mission 1 in 1993, which was then replaced by the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) during Servicing Mission 4 in 2009.
When launched, the HST carried five scientific instruments: the Wide Field and Planetary Camera (WF/PC), Goddard High Resolution Spectrograph (GHRS), High Speed Photometer (HSP), Faint Object Camera (FOC) and the Faint Object Spectrograph (FOS). WF/PC was a high-resolution imaging device primarily intended for optical observations. It was built by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and incorporated a set of 48 filters isolating spectral lines of particular astrophysical interest. The instrument contained eight charge-coupled device (CCD) chips divided between two cameras, each using four CCDs. Each CCD has a resolution of 0.64 megapixels. The "wide field camera" (WFC) covered a large angular field at the expense of resolution, while the "planetary camera" (PC) took images at a longer effective focal length than the WF chips, giving it a greater magnification.
The GHRS was a spectrograph designed to operate in the ultraviolet. It was built by the Goddard Space Flight Center and could achieve a spectral resolution of 90,000. Also optimized for ultraviolet observations were the FOC and FOS, which were capable of the highest spatial resolution of any instruments on Hubble. Rather than CCDs these three instruments used photon-counting digicons as their detectors. The FOC was constructed by ESA, while the University of California, San Diego, and Martin Marietta Corporation built the FOS.
The final instrument was the HSP, designed and built at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. It was optimized for visible and ultraviolet light observations of variable stars and other astronomical objects varying in brightness. It could take up to 100,000 measurements per second with a photometric accuracy of about 2% or better.
HST's guidance system can also be used as a scientific instrument. Its three Fine Guidance Sensors (FGS) are primarily used to keep the telescope accurately pointed during an observation, but can also be used to carry out extremely accurate astrometry; measurements accurate to within 0.0003 arcseconds have been achieved.
Hubble Control Center at Goddard Space Flight Center, 1999
The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) is responsible for the scientific operation of the telescope and the delivery of data products to astronomers. STScI is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) and is physically located in Baltimore, Maryland on the Homewood campus of Johns Hopkins University, one of the 39 US universities and seven international affiliates that make up the AURA consortium. STScI was established in 1981 after something of a power struggle between NASA and the scientific community at large. NASA had wanted to keep this function in-house, but scientists wanted it to be based in an academic establishment. The Space Telescope European Coordinating Facility (ST-ECF), established at Garching bei München near Munich in 1984, provided similar support for European astronomers until 2011, when these activities were moved to the European Space Astronomy Centre.
Hubble's low orbit means many targets are visible for slightly more than half of an orbit's elapsed time, since they are blocked from view by the Earth
for almost one-half of each orbit.
Animation of Hubble's orbit from October 31, 2018, to December 25, 2018. Earth is not shown.
One rather complex task that falls to STScI is scheduling observations for the telescope. Hubble is in a low-Earth orbit to enable servicing missions, but this means that most astronomical targets are occulted by the Earth for slightly less than half of each orbit. Observations cannot take place when the telescope passes through the South Atlantic Anomaly due to elevated radiation levels, and there are also sizable exclusion zones around the Sun (precluding observations of Mercury), Moon and Earth. The solar avoidance angle is about 50°, to keep sunlight from illuminating any part of the OTA. Earth and Moon avoidance keeps bright light out of the FGSs, and keeps scattered light from entering the instruments. If the FGSs are turned off, however, the Moon and Earth can be observed. Earth observations were used very early in the program to generate flat-fields for the WFPC1 instrument. There is a so-called continuous viewing zone (CVZ), at roughly 90° to the plane of Hubble's orbit, in which targets are not occulted for long periods. Due to the precession of the orbit, the location of the CVZ moves slowly over a period of eight weeks. Because the limb of the Earth is always within about 30° of regions within the CVZ, the brightness of scattered earthshine may be elevated for long periods during CVZ observations.
Hubble orbits in low Earth orbit at an altitude of approximately 540 kilometers (340 mi) and an inclination of 28.5°. The position along its orbit changes over time in a way that is not accurately predictable. The density of the upper atmosphere varies according to many factors, and this means that Hubble's predicted position for six weeks' time could be in error by up to 4,000 km (2,500 mi). Observation schedules are typically finalized only a few days in advance, as a longer lead time would mean there was a chance that the target would be unobservable by the time it was due to be observed.
Engineering support for HST is provided by NASA and contractor personnel at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, 48 km (30 mi) south of the STScI. Hubble's operation is monitored 24 hours per day by four teams of flight controllers who make up Hubble's Flight Operations Team.
Challenger disaster, delays, and eventual launch
lifts off, carrying Hubble into orbit.
Hubble being deployed from Discovery
By early 1986, the planned launch date of October that year looked feasible, but the Challenger accident brought the U.S. space program to a halt, grounding the Space Shuttle fleet and forcing the launch of Hubble to be postponed for several years. The telescope had to be kept in a clean room, powered up and purged with nitrogen, until a launch could be rescheduled. This costly situation (about US$6 million per month) pushed the overall costs of the project even higher. This delay did allow time for engineers to perform extensive tests, swap out a possibly failure-prone battery, and make other improvements. Furthermore, the ground software needed to control Hubble was not ready in 1986, and was barely ready by the 1990 launch.
Eventually, following the resumption of shuttle flights in 1988, the launch of the telescope was scheduled for 1990. On April 24, 1990, Space Shuttle Discovery successfully launched the telescope into its planned orbit during the STS-31 mission.
From its original total cost estimate of about US$400 million, the telescope cost about US$4.7 billion by the time of its launch. Hubble's cumulative costs were estimated to be about US$10 billion in 2010, twenty years after launch.