Despite Age, NASA's Hubble Telescope Is 'Cutting Edge'

After 20 years aloft, the Hubble Space Telescope is more powerful than ever and poised to help scientists figure out more of the big mysteries of the universe.

The Hubble, launched into orbit on April 24, 1990, has since been one of the greatest tool for the world's astronomers. For example, it played a key role in discovering that the universe, driven by a mysterious force called dark energy , is expanding at an ever accelerating rate.

Hubble also has been critical in helping scientists discover that most of the known galaxies in the universe contain massive black holes.

Some of the discoveries credited to Hubble during its 20 years in orbit are so important that academics had to revise astronomy textbooks. Many of those resulted from deep photographs of the universe taken from Hubble, along with its captured images of the birth and death of stars.

NASA also credits the telescope with helping scientists calculate that the universe is 13.7 billion years old.

Malcolm Niedner, NASA's observatory project scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope, told Computerworld today that Hubble's most important work may still be ahead of it.

"It's still incredibly exciting and rewarding," said Niedner. "It's stronger now than ever before. It has more scientific capability than ever before -- Hubble is still cutting edge."

NASA said its future plans for Hubble include collecting data about distant star formations, as well as about galaxies at the edge of the universe.

Niedner noted that the telescope will also continue peering back into cosmic history and the most distnt universes.

Last fall, Hubble snapped panoramic, full-color images that astronomers have used to see galaxies as they were billions of years ago. By early this year, those images had been stitched together to show 7,500 galaxies stretching back through most of the universe's history.

The telescope can take on additional projects because of updates installed there by the crew of NASA's space shuttle Atlantis when it landed there there in the spring of 2009. The astronauts replaced all six of the Hubble's gyroscopes and all six of its batteries, along with a computer unit that had failed in the fall of 2008.

Those fixes and upgrades souped up the Hubble , providing it with more more power and better tools.

The fixes and upgrades are expected to keep Hubble running at least through 2014, and perhaps until 2020, according to Niedner. Since the space shuttle fleet is on the verge of retirement, astronauts will not be able to travel to the Hubble to make any repairs in the foreseeable future.

Niedner did note, though, that there's a team of scientists, engineers and project managers on the ground who communicate with Hubble every day. The team sends and receives data from Hubble twice a day.

The earth-bound engineers can also upgrade Hubble's software and analyze any anomalies.

"It's an enormous technical feat," said Niedner. "Before the first servicing mission back in 1993, no one knew if this vision could work out. The scale of this technical operation in space - we just had no idea if it was possible. There was so much really technical work to be done. It was just a whole new realm of difficulty."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld . Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin , or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com .

Read more about emerging technologies in Computerworld's Emerging Technologies Knowledge Center.

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