Observatory celebrates Hubble's 15th anniversary

Observatory celebrates Hubble's 15th anniversary
WSU researcher David Alexander was among the first to use telescope

8:55:01 AM CDT - Thursday, April 07, 2005

By Amy Geiszler-Jones

With the 15th anniversary of the Hubble telescope's launch coming up later this month, WSU's Lake Afton Public Observatory is celebrating the telescope's achievements with a new exhibit and viewing program on select weekends in April, May and June.

About the size of a large school bus, the Hubble telescope has provided phenomenal pictures of galaxies, planets and nebulae since it was launched April 24, 1990, by the space shuttle Discovery.

During the observatory's programs, visitors will be able to see some of the objects Hubble has seen through LAPO's 16-inch telescope. Program-goers will look at Saturn or Jupiter, nearby galaxies, a dying star, a binary star pair and a cluster of stars in the outer halo of the Milky Way galaxy.

Initially the telescope wasn't able to provide fantastic photos because shortly after launching, an optical defect was discovered.

For WSU astronomer David Alexander, several scientists' misfortune of not being able to use the optical mirror was his gain. He was among the first set of scientists who used the Hubble telescope to gather astronomical data.
Alexander and a group of researchers received about $250,000 to do research on very old stars using other parts of the Hubble's technology.

"Had that optical defect not been discovered, we wouldn't have gotten in," Alexander said. "When it got fixed, we didn't try again because we knew we wouldn't get in."

Alexander said he and the researchers, led by his mentor Indiana University professor Hollis Johnson, were able to have the Hubble observe three or four different carbon stars and collect spectrum data for about a total of 50 to 60 hours in two cycles.

"That's a lot of time," Alexander said, noting most scientists only get about one to two hours of observation time in one cycle.

Carbon stars are very, very old stars that have gone through a rich, active history and have produced extra carbon and other elements. All the carbon in the universe, including that on Earth, has been produced by stars. Alexander and his group looked at certain spectrum patterns being created by carbon and other elements.

Since getting its optical mirror fixed, the Hubble has captured images of the violent death of a massive star, along with the births of these bright celestial objects. It was our witness to Jupiter being invaded by pieces of the Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 that plunged into the planet's atmosphere and exploded. It has peered across space to study galaxies in an infant universe and has helped scientists understand gamma ray bursts.

The exhibits at LAPO will showcase some of those discoveries and the telescope's uncertain future. With its 2006 repair mission currently canceled and inadequate funding for 2005, the Hubble may become space junk in two to three years.

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