During the 1920s, Hermann Oberth (1894-1989) first conceived of a space telescope. As a young boy, he had read From Earth to the Moon (by Jules Verne) and became obsessed with the idea that fiction could become reality. And, if one could go to the Moon, why not build a telescope which could orbit in space?
A visionary thinker, Oberth’s doctoral dissertation (addressing the concept of rocket-powered flight) was rejected by the University of Heidelberg. His professors thought Oberth’s ideas were too speculative. They, of course, were wrong.
During the 1960s, Lyman Spitzer - who had previously conducted pioneering research (in controlled thermonuclear reactions) at Princeton University - pushed both NASA and Congress to create, and deploy, a large space telescope. His efforts ultimately resulted in the Hubble telescope. That Earth-orbiting observatory is named for Edwin Hubble (1889-1953) - depicted in this undated photo watching the stars at Palomar Mountain - who believed that the universe is expanding.
Lockheed Martin built Hubble which is forty-three feet tall, fourteen feet wide and twenty-five thousand pounds. Perkin Elmer (now Hughes Danbury Optical Systems, Inc.) fabricated its primary mirror which measures 2.4 meters (eight feet).
After many years of delay caused by various problems, including the Challenger disaster, Discovery (during its STS-31 mission) carriedHubble to space on April 24, 1990. The next day, the shuttle’s astronauts deployed the telescope about 353 miles (569 kilometers) above the Earth, where it has remained ever since. Beginning its working life in space, Hubble reflected sunlight on its solar panels.
Weightless in space, traveling approximately five miles per second, Hubble orbits the Earth once every 97 minutes. (Follow the link to see its current location.) Because Earth’s atmosphere tends to distortourview “looking up,” Hubble - which is above the atmosphere - has a much clearer vision of objects in space. A reflecting telescope, employing a Cassegrain design, it is commanded and controlled by specialists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
Although Hermann Oberth was no longer alive when Hubble was deployed, he had lived long enough to see a model of it. And Lyman Spitzer - who was actively involved in Hubble’s creation and initial use - was recognized when the new Spitzer Space Telescope was launched on August 25, 2003. It has particular sensitivity to infrared light.
So ... how do these space telescopes actually work? And ... is space really as colorful as those pictures we see on the evening news?