Dear Hubble: How one telescope transformed astronomy, and us all

On the 29th anniversary of the instrument's first image, a former analyst reflects on how it became a scientific powerhouse—and cultural icon.

This essay is an entry in our "Dear Spacecraft" series, where we ask writers, scientists, and astronomy enthusiasts to share why they feel personally connected to robotic space explorers.

Dear Hubble,

A few years back, a series of segments appeared on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon that astronomy nerds loved. Here’s the premise: A bombastic guy decked out in Yankees gear named “Milky J” would come out of the audience and get in-your-face excited about, of all things, the Hubble Space Telescope. One after the next, Milky J would show mind-blowing Hubble pictures, and then he’d shout his catchphrase: “Hubble gotchu!”

In my case, Milky J’s catchphrase proved pretty accurate. Wherever I’ve been in life—an astronomy nerd, a telescope data analyst, and now a science journalist who keeps up with your latest—you’ve got me.

Your road to fame was a rocky one. You started as a massive government boondoggle, a punchline on the same kind of late-night talk shows that later celebrated you. You were supposed to launch in 1983, but you were delayed. You were supposed to cost in the hundreds of millions, but your budget ran over—way over. And when you finally launched in 1990, your vision was blurred, thanks to a mirror misshapen by the contractors who built you.

Things started to turn around for you in the spring of 1993, when astronomers spotted a shattered comet on course to hit Jupiter. They wanted you at full strength to watch, and that winter, astronauts visited you and installed corrective eyewear. With days to go before the comet crash, you still were having software problems (pre-game jitters, perhaps?). But just in time, you caught the scars in Jupiter’s atmosphere from the cometary impacts—echoes of the ancient collision here that doomed the dinosaurs.

Soon after that, I encountered you for the first time. When I was in elementary school, I saw your famous “Pillars of Creation” picture, and I remember it shaking my world. You were showing us technicolor stalagmites that stretched for light-years tall. They were something vast, something that couldn’t possibly be real.

Iconic Space Images Are Actually Black-and-White The Hubble Space Telescope can take only black-and-white images. But by analyzing the wavelengths of light that different elements emit in space, this man turns dull pictures of our universe into the colorful masterpieces we've come to love.

I didn’t understand then that inspiring such awe was only part of your much larger mission. For example, you measured the speed at which faraway galaxies recede from each other as the universe expands—a rate that, like you, shares its name with astronomer Edwin Hubble.

For decades, cosmologists lived and died fighting over the precise value of this number, so you were built to settle the matter. But you just couldn’t leave well enough alone: By gazing out at distant exploding stars, you showed that the expansion of space is actually accelerating thanks to a mysterious mixer in the cosmic cocktail we now call dark energy. As you re-measure the expansion rate with greater precision, your findings disagree with those made by the world’s greatest cosmology observatories. If this discrepancy holds, it might mean that you’ve spotted yet another missing ingredient in the universe—you know, as one does.

You’ve also peered for days, brooding, into the darkest corner of space you could find. Each time you have, you’ve encountered innumerable galaxies, reaching back toward the dawn of time itself. Your first attempt at this visual time-travel was called the Hubble Deep Field. Now, after the “Ultra Deep Field,” the “Extreme Deep Field,” and the “Frontier Fields,” you must be running out of adjectives to describe the depth of your view.

And when you’re not looking into the universe’s earliest days, you’re sometimes watching the atmospheres of worlds outside our solar system. Nobody even knew of any exoplanets when they built you. Now, you can watch a planet cross in front of its home star and spot the light that filters through that planet’s atmosphere. Such subtle signals are as close to sniffing alien air as we’re going to get anytime soon.

Through all this, you have kept releasing images, and I have kept looking at them in awe. I remember forcing friends and college study buddies to click through your picture galleries, telling them that your dreamscapes were as sublime as Edmund Burke or Immanuel Kant would have defined it. Remember those images? The galaxies tearing into each other like clashing hurricanes? The clusters of uncountable stars? The nebulae puffed out by dead suns, carved into baubles of colored glass?

After college, I worked at your base on Earth, Baltimore’s Space Telescope Science Institute. I don’t think you would remember me; I was one of the little people, a very small part of a team analyzing one of your cameras for signs of wear and tear. Now, I spend a lot less time looking through your raw data. But I still love seeing your images; you remain a sharp eye above Earth’s atmosphere, a steady presence that makes so many discoveries possible.

This past year, I turned 30, a time for retrospection. Please know that as you also enter your third decade, many of us back on Earth feel so much kinship with you—a world-famous telescope the size of a school bus, a portal to the surreal and the sublime, and arguably one of the greatest science experiments in human history.

What I’m saying is: We gotchu.

Josh

Joshua Sokol is a freelance writer based in Boston. A former research and instrument analyst on Hubble, he now covers deep space, deep time, and other topics in natural history. Connect with him on Twitter.