Why are we still using the Hubble Space Telescope?

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Answered by: John, An Expert in the Astronomy 101 Category
Since its launch in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has aided in providing some of the most captivating and beautiful images our universe has to offer. It currently hangs in low earth orbit, or about 347 miles above ground level, taking measurements and pictures with its many instruments and technological attachments.

Over the last twenty five years, the HST has gained what would have been considered an unimaginable amount of recognition in 1990, leading it to essentially becoming a household name. In fact, the HST has such a favorable reputation that it is attributed with the positive public relations boom that NASA and astronomy overall experienced throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. The Hubble Space Telescope has achieved much and aided in several academic advances.

Technology has a strange way of accelerating exponentially, so it seems only logical that a piece of equipment, such as the HST, must surely be outdated over two decades after its initial launch. Why, then, are scientists still relying on comparatively ancient technology to make such important measurements and observations? The answer to that question is both fascinating and multi-faceted.

The first and most integral fact is that the HST was the first space telescope created specifically with the intention of having the object be serviceable by astronauts. Previous to the launch of Hubble, telescopes were meant to be finished products after being launched into orbit, and only had the lifespan it was designed to have in its conception and creation. The HST, however, has been routinely serviced over the past two decades, extending the lifespan longer than anyone believed would be possible for a space telescope. Not only is the equipment on board of the telescope fixed regularly by servicing astronauts, though, because since its launch, Hubble has received five upgrades to the equipment on board. This allowed the technology used by the HST to be up-to-date with the technology of the era. In effect, the current state of Hubble provides more accurate measurements than ever before.

In addition, as money in this economic climate is difficult to deliver to publicly funded space agencies, it makes the most financial sense to upgrade existing hardware as opposed to delivering new telescopes to orbit. For example, the new space telescope that NASA plans to launch in 2018 has an estimated cost of 8.7 billion dollars, compared to the the HST which has a standard operating cost of just 98 million dollars per year. As money is increasingly tight for NASA especially, it seems only realistic that they should continue maintaining Hubble as long as possible in order to receive as much information as possible through it.

NASA is currently considering to end all future service missions for Hubble, and has held that as its official position since 2015. Hubbles successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is planned to launch in 2018, which Hubble is estimated to last until. However, NASA has publicly stated that when it becomes necessary, they may review and change their position with regards to the service of the HST, meaning there is hope for it to be renewed and upgraded for the foreseeable future.

It will be a sad day when the HST is officially put out of commission. It has led many hobbyists and officials to make amazing and mind-boggling discoveries. It has been instrumental in developing our current view of the universe. Until that day, however, we can only hope that Hubble will continue providing beautiful images of nearby galaxies and accurate measurements for scientific studies.

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