By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
A computer error took Hubble’s systems offline for a month. Now the telescope is back online and already sending new images of distant galaxies back to Earth. Its namesake advanced astronomy 100 years ago.
The Hubble Space Telescope suffered a computer anomaly in June that shut it down for more than a month. On July 17, it came back online and resumed its exploration of outer space, sending back newly taken images of faraway spiral galaxies. Over the course of its 32-year mission, although Hubble has had several operational problems, it has documented and returned incredible images of outer space.
Little is said about the man after whom the long-operational telescope is named. In his video series Experiencing Hubble: Exploring the Milky Way, Dr. David M. Meyer, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Northwestern University, explained Edwin Hubble’s contributions to the world of astronomy.
Set Up for Success
“Despite his passion for astronomy since grade school, [Edwin] Hubble originally trained to become a lawyer and won a Rhodes Scholarship to attend Oxford in England,” Dr. Meyer said. “After returning to the United States, he decided to make astronomy his career instead and completed his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Chicago in 1917. When Hubble again returned to the States in 1919, after serving in World War I, he was offered a staff position at Mount Wilson Observatory.”
According to Dr. Meyer, this was nothing short of serendipitous. Mount Wilson Observatory had recently completed work on its 100-inch telescope, which was at the time the largest telescope in the world. It would remain the world’s largest telescope until 1949. Interested in the nebulous objects that exhibited spiral shapes or elliptical symmetry in the night sky, Hubble used the Mount Wilson telescope to observe them.
“Among these objects, then called nebulae, the brightest was known as the Great Spiral Nebula in Andromeda,” Dr. Meyer said. “This object became Hubble’s key target in his quest to determine the distance and true nature of the so-called spiritual nebulae. Using the 100-inch telescope, he was able to resolve out some of the bright stars in the Andromeda nebula.”
Edwin Hubble’s biggest breakthrough was realizing that some of the stars he observed were actually pulsating stars that are known as Cepheid variables. Upon close examination, the variations in brightness of these stars can be used to determine their distance from Earth.
“In a landmark paper presented in 1925, Hubble showed that the Andromeda Cepheids indicate that what had been thought to be a spiral nebula is actually a galaxy of stars that is much farther away than the Milky Way,” Dr. Meyer said. “At its distance of 2.5 million light-years, Andromeda is the nearest spiral galaxy to the Milky Way. With this discovery, the Milky Way is recognized as one galaxy out of many galaxies.”
A more literal reason for the naming of the Hubble telescope occurred after this discovery. As he continued his observation, Dr. Hubble captured and compiled highly-detailed photos of many other galaxies. Dr. Meyer said that they revealed that the vast majority of large galaxies nearest to the Milky Way exhibit spiral shapes or elliptical symmetry.
“Based on these observations, he developed the so-called ‘tuning fork’ classification scheme for galaxies into elliptical and spiral,” Dr. Meyer said. “The elliptical galaxies range from more spherical to more flattened and cigar-shaped. In general, all elliptical galaxies consist of old stars, lack abundant gas clouds, and have very little to no ongoing star formation.”