NASA to extend Hubble operations

Published: Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Hubble will soon start seeing double. NASA has announced plans to extend operations of the famous space telescope for another five years, through to June 2021. That means it will still be on the job when its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) launches in 2018, giving astronomers a dual view of the universe.

NASA launched Hubble in 1990 and it has been operating well ever since, barring a few difficult repairs by space shuttle crews. The last in-flight servicing took place in 2009, and the retirement of the shuttle in 2011 has left NASA with no way of fixing Hubble, but it says the telescope is still going strong.

“Hubble is expected to continue to provide valuable data into the 2020s, securing its place in history as an outstanding general-purpose observatory in areas ranging from our solar system to the distant universe,” said a NASA statement.

Two wavelengths
Squeezing more life out of Hubble means it will overlap with NASA’s next big telescope, JWST when it launches in 2018. While Hubble sees the cosmos in visible and ultraviolet light, JWST operates in the infrared. The various wavelengths can reveal different aspects of stars and galaxies, so using the scopes in tandem will enable astronomers to study the heavens in even greater detail.

“It’s fantastic news because we were never quite sure how long Hubble would last after the last service mission,” says regular Hubble user Boris Gänsicke at the University of Warwick, UK. “It will allow us to do science with the unique capabilities that both observatories have.”

Gänsicke says that he is particularly interested in studying the remains of planetary systems around spent stars known as white dwarfs. Hubble can already use observations in ultraviolet light to study asteroids falling into a white dwarf, while JWST will be able to turn its infrared eyes to the disc of leftover dust in orbit around the stars.

“It will give us two completely independent ways of analysing the same materials, which greatly strengthens the result and allows us to work out what kind of minerals these asteroids were made of,” says Gänsicke.