Ed Weiler on celebrating Hubble Space Telescope’s 20th anniversary

Ed Weiler: The Hubble Space Telescope has discovered things that we could never have anticipated. It’s literally changed our view of the universe.

NASA astrophysicist Ed Weiler was chief scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope from 1979 to 1998. April 2010 marks the 20th anniversary of Hubble’s launch.

Ed Weiler: I must say that after we launched it and found out that we had an optical problems, I didn’t think that we’d be here 20 years later, talking about the great successes that Hubble has achieved.

Weiler said the Hubble has taken images of the universe that are ten times clearer than any ever produced by ground-based telescopes.

Ed Weiler: It’s like we’ve been near-sighted for the whole history of humankind. And we suddenly put on our glasses and have 20-20 vision of the universe. We’ve literally seen things we’ve never seen before, as nearby as pictures of our planets, to stars in our own galaxy, to other galaxies, and almost back to the very beginning of time.

The Hubble was refitted with new instruments in 2009. EarthSky asked Dr. Weiler what he expects from it in the years to come.

Ed Weiler: When you’ve got something this powerful, and a universe that’s not quite infinite but almost infinite, I’m not going to make any predictions about what we’re going to discover because by definition a discovery is something you didn’t know.

Dr. Weiler also spoke of the science done by Hubble.

Ed Weiler: Hubble had the nerve to take a picture, a very deep image of the universe over a 30-hour time exposure, which revealed the universe all the way back to six or seven hundred million years after the Big Bang. What we saw were well-formed galaxies and stars. So it turns out that the universe got started a lot faster than any of us humans thought it could. And that still has been unresolved today, how did that happen, and why did it happen?

Weiler talked about what Hubble has shown us about young stars.

Ed Weiler: Every young star Hubble has looked at seems to have what we call a proto-planetary disc around it. It looks like an old long-playing record around the star, basically a disc of dust and gas rotating around a very young, baby star. Why is that important? Well that’s exactly how we think our own solar system will have looked when the solar system was just being born. And what this shows us is that our solar system is probably not unique. In fact, solar systems might be as common as stars themselves. And that has profound implications for whether there are other planets out there or, more importantly, whether there are Earth-like planets out there. And of course, maybe there’s other life out there.

The Hubble Space Telescope has released thousands of images of planets, stars, galaxies, supernovae, nebulae, and more throughout its 20 years of orbit around Earth. Dr. Weiler talked about his favorite Hubble image.

Edward Weiler: Absolutely, without doubt my favorite image is something called the Eagle Nebulae. That’s a star-forming region. It’s literally the birth-place of stars. It’s like a stellar nursery. And I’m sure that almost every American has seen this picture, who has ever read a newspaper or looked at a book. It’s three gaseous pillars, very colorful. I remember the day we released this at a press conference. It was so stunning that CNN went live after the press conference and had people calling in, talking about what they saw in the image, or what it meant to them. I remember one person said it looked like the pillars of creation. And that’s kind of stuck as a nickname for this image.

April 19, 2010

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