Happy birthday Hubble telescope

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Hubble Telescope via hubblesite.org

A picture of two galaxies interacting. The photo has been dubbed "Rose" since it resembles a pink flower complete with stem.

On Sunday the Hubble Space Telescope turns 21-years-old. To mark the occasion, NASA is releasing new photos from Hubble’s camera. The latest image - called “Rose” - depicts two galaxies that together look like a flower on a long stem. It’s one of hundreds of thousands of pictures taken by a telescope that almost didn’t fulfill its mission.

The Hubble Telescope is famous for taking jaw-dropping pictures of deep space – and for starting its career with a bad case of blurred vision.

But before engineers turned the first screw on the space telescope, Hubble’s future was on shaky ground. It almost stalled out in 1974 when the House Appropriations Committee zeroed out all spending for the project.

Astronomers launched a nationwide lobbying effort and managed to revive some of that money.

Then, just before Hubble’s scheduled launch in October of 1986, the Challenger Space Shuttle met with disaster. That national tragedy stopped the space program cold…for awhile.

When Hubble finally entered earth’s orbit in 1990, even NASA veterans were relieved.

But the celebration didn’t last long. Scientists quickly learned that telescope couldn’t do what they’d hoped it would. The mirror that captured images was 2.2 microns off its target size – an error roughly one-fiftieth the size of a human hair… more than enough to cause problems.

"So it would be like putting glasses in front of your eyes that were made to the slightly wrong prescription," says Jim Fanson.

Fanson is a project manager with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. He belonged to the team charged with getting Hubble to straighten up and fly right... or, in this case, spy right.

Fanson's crew had to build a replacement camera that would adjust for Hubble’s defect so perfectly it would effectively cancel it out.

"The stakes were very high," he recalls. "It was a period of very intense effort. I remember sleeping on a cot in the office here we were putting in such long hours. And always in the back of your mind you are wondering, have I got it right?"

Fanson and the engineers at JPL did get it right. A crew of astronauts installed the new camera on Hubble during a service mission in 1993.

Since then, Hubble has orbited the earth tens of thousands of times and snapped close to half a million pictures of the final frontier.

JPL's Jim Fanson says that despite its rocky childhood, the Hubble telescope matured into an invaluable instrument.

"Hubble has informed our understanding of dark energy and dark matter, the rate at which the universe is expanding, how solar systems like our own have formed. There is almost no topic in astronomy that has not been touched by Hubble."

Now that it’s safely cleared adolescence, Hubble is already looking forward to retirement. In about three years, NASA’s deploying a new telescope to replace it. Until then, Hubble will continue training its super sight on the farthest reaches of space.

To see more images from deep space, check out the Hubble photo gallery.

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