Astronomical Highs

posted in: science, space, technology 0

In space, exciting things are happening. Two expensive and high-profile space observatories from the European Space Agency (ESA)—Herschel (infrared) and Planck (cosmic microwave background, or Big Bang radiation), were launched together on a single Ariane 5 launcher. A lot of breaths were being held on that one, but they’re both in space now, bound for the L2 orbital point 1.5 million km from Earth, where they’ll be able to conduct their observations far from interference. Here’s the launch, from French Guiana:

In addition, Atlantis astronauts have been hard at work refurbishing the Hubble Space Telescope. I snipped this image from a much larger one on Astronomy Picture of the Day:

That’s Atlantis and the Hubble, caught in silhouette against the sun, by a camera on the ground. Hats off to the photographer, astronomer Thierry Legault, who took the image—and to those astronauts, who have been called upon to whack and grunt at their wrenches, trying to loosen frozen bolts and praying they don’t break anything, just like the rest of us working on our cars in the driveway.

I just have one gripe about the mission, which includes attaching a docking ring so that at the end of the Hubble’s service life in five years they can hook up a propulsion unit and deorbit Hubble into reentry over the Pacific Ocean. I’d rather they boosted Hubble into a higher, longer lasting orbit, where one day we could retrieve it to bring it back safely to Earth and put it in the Air and Space Museum. Or, alternatively, we could establish it as a National Historic Site right there in orbit—to be visited by space-traveling tourists. Perhaps it could become the nucleus of the future (literal) space wing of the Smithsonian. Surely it has earned that right.

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