Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Washington’s Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum has a New COSTAR

Summer vacation is just around the corner. If you’re planning a trip to the nation’s capital, there is a new exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum on the Mall worth checking out.

National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.

Shortly after NASA launched the Hubble Space Telescope on April 24, 1990, scientists realized something was wrong. The long-awaited instrument that scientists anticipated would usher in a new era in astronomy was sending them fuzzy images. The problem was the mirror – the eye of the telescope.

The blunder was a major blow to scientists, but that’s just the beginning of the story. Three years later, in 1993, during the first of four Hubble servicing mission, NASA astronauts repaired the telescope’s vision by attaching two instruments.

A before and after image of galaxy M100 of what Hubble images looked like without and with the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2. The left image is before. Credit: NASA
These two corrective instruments are why, using Hubble, scientists have been able to set a new eye on our universe, the likes of which had never been set before. The resulting images and knowledge Hubble brought to the table, exposing us to the breathtaking beauty and utter vastness beyond our Solar System, speak for themselves.

Now, you can see those two crucial instruments largely responsible for Hubble’s success in person at Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in a new exhibit called “Repairing Hubble.” The exhibit features both the Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement (COSTAR) instrument and the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2).

The larger of the two instruments, WFPC2, tilts on a wedge allowing viewers a peak at the guts of the instrument. These guts were responsible for sharpening Hubble’s images, producing many of the crystal-clear shots of distant galaxies, picturesque nebulae and ghostly, black hole-powered jets that have become so iconic with the Hubble name.

Field of distant galaxies taken by Hubble in 1994.
Credit: Hubble Space Telescope WFPC Team, NASA/ESA, STScI

WFPC2 adorned 48 filters, which enabled observers to study a broad range of wavelengths from the near-infrared to ultraviolet. The instrument is also behind many of Hubble’s stair-step images, making them look like decorated Tetris pieces.

Next to WFPC2 in the exhibit is COSTAR. While WFPC2 sharpened Hubble images, COSTAR removed the fuzziness with a series of lenses that focused the light, improving the telescope’s vision.

NASA astronaut at top guiding COSTAR to its resting position on Hubble. Credit: NASA

WFPC2 and COSTAR were the first Hubble instruments with built-in corrective optics. In 2009, during the fourth and final Hubble servicing mission, astronauts removed both WFPC2 and COSTAR replacing them with the Wide Field Camera 3 and the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, respectively.

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