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How Close Was the Hubble Space Telescope to Failure in the Early 1990s?

Margaret Lipman
By
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Hubble Space Telescope is famous for capturing incredible images of our universe such as Pillars of Creation, which shows stars forming in clouds of interstellar gas and dust in the Eagle Nebula, almost 7,000 light-years away.

More than three decades after the Hubble Space Telescope became operational, it’s easy to forget that the telescope had an incredibly rocky start. Soon after it was launched into low Earth orbit by the space shuttle Discovery in 1990, it became clear that something was wrong. There was a "spherical aberration" with the telescope's main focusing mirror. Perkin-Elmer, the company that had produced the mirror for NASA, had polished it too flat.

Although the aberration was just 1/50 the width of a human hair, such a discrepancy was enough to cause many of Hubble’s deep-space images to appear blurry. The problem was an expensive embarrassment for NASA, though Hubble was still able to collect invaluable data about the universe. And even its slightly fuzzy images were much better than what a telescope on the ground could capture.

STS-61, the mission to fix the Hubble Space Telescope, took place in December 1993, with astronauts aboard the space shuttle Endeavour performing incredibly complex maneuvers to install the COSTAR system, essentially fitting the telescope with a set of $50-million corrective optics. Training for the mission required years of careful preparation. During five consecutive days of spacewalks, astronauts Story Musgrave, Jeff Hoffman, Kathy Thornton, and Tom Akers worked in teams to fix Hubble, using 200 specially-designed tools.

Luckily, the story has a happy ending. The repair was a resounding success, allowing Hubble to transmit much sharper images back to Earth. A total of five servicing missions, including STS-61, have taken place from 1993 to 2009 to keep Hubble operational.

More about Hubble:

  • The Hubble Space Telescope was named for American astronomer Edwin Hubble. Among his many achievements, Hubble discovered that the Andromeda galaxy was distinct from our own Milky Way and that galaxies move apart at a constant rate.

  • Congress approved funding for a space-based observatory back in 1977, but the Challenger disaster in 1986 delayed the program significantly, putting it seven years behind schedule and significantly over budget.

  • Though Hubble is estimated to continue operating until the 2030s or 2040s, its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, was launched in 2021. Unlike the Earth-orbiting Hubble, the James Webb Space Telescope is in orbit around the Sun, approximately 1 million miles (1.5 million km) away from Earth.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Margaret Lipman
By Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range of topics. Her articles cover essential areas such as finance, parenting, health and wellness, nutrition, educational strategies. Margaret's writing is guided by her passion for enriching the lives of her readers through practical advice and well-researched information.
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Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range...
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