This Day In History: Hubble Space Telescope Goes Into Orbit

Illustration for article titled This Day In History: Hubble Space Telescope Goes Into Orbit
Photo: NASA (Getty Images)

On April 25, 1990, NASA placed the Hubble Space Telescope into low orbit around Earth. It wasn’t the first telescope placed into orbit, but it’s been one of the longest-lasting and most versatile, providing gorgeous images of space that have furthered our understanding of astronomy and introduced future generations to the magic of the universe.


(Welcome to Today in History, the series where we dive into important historical events that have had a significant impact on the automotive or racing world. If you have something you’d like to see that falls on an upcoming weekend, let me know at eblackstock [at] jalopnik [dot] com.)

The technology used in the telescope isn’t anything terribly groundbreaking, since it’s based on the kind of stuff that scientists and thinkers were dreaming up for centuries, and the initial design was conceived in the 1940s. It was properly put on paper in the 1970s, built in the 1980s, and launched in the 1990s.

It features a 7'10" mirror that ends up making the telescope itself about the size of a bus. It has different instruments that observe the ultraviolet, visible, and near-infrared regions of the electromagnetic spectrum to capture incredible images of both earth and deep space, and it has a resolution ten times better than that of ground-based observatories. It’s solar powered and orbits the earth once every 97 minutes.

And we can credit the Hubble Space Telescope with tons of discoveries, including:

  • Determining the rate of expansion of the universe
  • A comet’s collision with Jupiter
  • The first direct look at the surface of Pluto
  • Viewing distant galaxies, gas clouds, and black holes
  • Seeing billions of years into the universe’s past
  • Reappearance of a supernova
  • Mass and size of the Milky Way

And tons more. This has been a crucial tool to defining the universe around us and helping us plumb the depths of science’s limits.

Weekends at Jalopnik. Managing editor at A Girl's Guide to Cars. Lead IndyCar writer and assistant editor at Frontstretch. Novelist. Motorsport fanatic.


Mark Longoria

Liz, I am so disappointed that you didn’t mention the flaw in Hubble’s mirror

What was wrong with Hubble’s mirror, and how was it fixed?

The cause was spherical aberration in its primary mirror. Perkin-Elmer – the optics contractor about whom NASA harboured such misgivings a decade earlier – had removed too much glass and polished it too flat.

The flaw was tiny, two-fiftieths as broad as a human hair, but that was more than enough to keep Hubble from delivering the razor-sharp imagery that NASA had promised the public and its political masters.

The mood, remembered program scientist Ed Weiler, was like falling from the summit of Mount Everest to the floor of Death Valley.

Even NASA’s newest class of astronauts were not immune to the frenzy of media questions. The agency launched an investigation, headed by Jet Propulsion Laboratory director Lew Allen.

His report, published in November, blamed an optical device called a reflective null corrector, which was supposed to determine the figure of Hubble’s mirror.

But the location of the null corrector’s lens had been incorrectly measured and it guided the polishing machine to shape a perfectly smooth mirror with the wrong curvature.

If further proof was needed, the curvature flaw in the mirror exactly matched the flaw in the null corrector. A second null corrector had identified the mistake but was overruled.

Technicians had simply assumed that both mirror and null corrector were perfect and rejected data from other independent tests which indicated otherwise.