The Looker

After rocky start, Hubble getting "wow" from all sectors

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(CNN) -- Today, the Hubble Space Telescope is Earth's orbiting eye to the heavens, beaming images of celestial phenomenon both near and far back home.

Launched by NASA in 1990 with great fanfare, Hubble quickly turned into a public relations disaster. A flaw in the telescope's main mirror meant that all the images relayed back were out of focus, far from the high-quality pictures NASA had promised.

Three years later, the crew of the space shuttle Endeavour went on a repair mission. Now, Hubble is everything NASA wanted and more. As NASA's Ed Weiler explained, the 1993 repair mission brought the Hubble back to its original specifications -- or maybe even "a little better." "It's been a story of promises made, promises kept," he said.

Astronomer Anne Kinney agreed that the Hubble is all it was cracked up to be. Along with a select group of ground-based telescopes, like the twin Keck Observatories in Hawaii, Hubble has emerged as one of astronomy's premier imaging tools.

comet strikes Jupiter

"All you have to do is look at the textbooks," Kinney said. "They are being rewritten page by page, Hubble image after Hubble image."

Hubble has imaged nearly every planet in our solar system. It's tracked dust storms on Mars. It's watched the fragments of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 bruise and batter Jupiter. And it detected a mysterious black spot on Neptune, which seems to be a storm that comes and goes.

"There are a lot of people that are surprised that Hubble can even look at planets in our solar system, because they think of Hubble as looking back to the beginning of time or at things billions of times fainter than the eye can see," said Weiler. "But indeed, about 15 percent of the time Hubble spends observing our own planets."

Hubble also took the first detailed photographs of the distant planet Pluto, the only planet in our solar system that has never been visited by a space probe. And Hubble took pictures of the rings of Saturn viewed "on edge," discovering four new moons in the process.

Hubble telescope
images from the hubble link

Hubble is able to take sharp, detailed images of the planets because it is in orbit 380 miles above the Earth, floating above the atmosphere. Astronomer Keith Noll compared it to trying to see outside from the bottom of a swimming pool: you don't get a very clear view.

"Once you're above the atmosphere, that turbulence is gone and you're able to use to full advantage the ability of your telescope to make out very fine details in objects," Noll said.

While Hubble continues to make new discoveries in planetary science, it may be an even more valuable tool for looking deep into the cosmos, in pursuit of answers to the most fundamental questions humankind can ponder -- how do galaxies form? How do stars form, and die? And, how old is the universe?

Pictures it has shot of deep space have so far been Hubble's most stunning images. "It's always a surprise when you see those images. I mean, everybody I know when they first saw the Eagle Nebula, they looked at it and they said, 'Wow.'"

Astronomers who use the Hubble Space Telescope say there will be many more "wows" to come as they peer out into the galaxies, working to better understand the universe and our place in it.

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