New images from the cosmos as the International Year of Astronomy is observed

(Edmonton) It has been dubbed "the people's telescope," partly because of a public outcry that NASA continue with the fifth repair to the Hubble Space telescope. Yesterday, the newly repaire

14 September 2009

(Edmonton) It has been dubbed "the people's telescope," partly because of a public outcry that NASA continue with the fifth repair to the Hubble Space telescope. Yesterday, the newly repaired telescope paid back that support as its spectacular trademark images were released by NASA.

"Hubble has been reborn and judging from these impressive pictures, the repair mission was a success. It was a complex mission but the telescope is now more powerful than it's ever been, and you can tell from looking at the sharper images it has produced," said Robert Smith, University of Alberta history professor who specializes in space astronomy.

"We can expect more images like these to come until the telescope dies."

Astronauts had to do some cumbersome maneuvers during the repairs, some of which were never designed to be done in space, Smith said. The telescope continues to garner public interest because it has produced remarkable pictures in the past and, Smith says, with the recent repairs done earlier in May, several hundred more images like the ones released will follow.

Among the repairs to the telescope, which has been in orbit for 19 years, were the installation of a new Wide Field Camera 3 and a Cosmic Origin Spectrograph, which collects scientific data. But the controversy surrounding the repairs highlights some of the issues raised in a recently published study, in which Smith examined the impact on space exploration by current systems of management and control. He says astronomers have to concern themselves with more than just the technical details of their projects.

"They not only have to ensure that their projects are technically and scientifically feasible to get funding, but also assemble a political coalition to see their projects through," Smith said. "They have got to make their projects politically feasible as well."

This was certainly not the case for Galileo, who 400 years ago simply built his own telescope and went about observing the stars. This year is recognized as the "International Year of Astronomy" in recognition of the anniversary of his efforts.

Smith recently wrote a book featuring previous pictures of space taken by the Hubble space telescope and in his new study, "Early History Space Astronomy: Issues of Patronage, Management and Control," he gives historical analysis on issues of control raised by mostly U.S. scientists over NASA's management decisions.

He says there often is a disconnect between what governments want to fund and the project astronomers want to work on, but that the exchange between the two allows for projects to be repackaged in order to get funding approval.

Smith says that a century ago, the people who built big telescopes were the same people who provided the money. But seeing outer space now takes a whole lot more than that, and the implications are not necessarily good for space explorations.

"Patrons, or governments, dictate space projects now," Smith said. "This changes what it means to be an astronomer. Some of them have to spend time now convincing their governments that the projects they want to work on are worthwhile. And the process slows down their projects."

A good example of that is Hubble and its successor. Smith says planning for Hubble started in the 1960s, but it was not until the 1990s that the telescope actually went into space. And its replacement, the James Webb, will be complete in 2014, almost 20 years after serious planning started.

At $15 billion, Smith considers the Hubble telescope probably the most scientific instrument ever built. He says the James Webb telescope, on which the Canadian government, along with United States and European governments, is working, will be much bigger and powerful.

"So for these really big scientific instruments, you need over two decades to bring them into being. Part of that is not just working out the technology; you have to get all the political actors aligned in the same direction as well," Smith said.

"Astronomers now would like to control what goes on but they have to work with their sponsoring government agencies. It's not a question that you'd like to have the patron say to astronomers, 'that's a good project idea, here's a billion dollars, go and spend it.'"

This article originally appeared in the University of Alberta's ExpressNews

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