Face to face with the Universe
Since being lofted heavenward in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has traveled 1.4 billion miles, and so it’s no wonder that its gyroscopes are on the blink, that its skin is peeling and that its radio transmitter is in woeful shape, among other problems.
Not to worry. The shuttle Discovery zipped alongside it some 370 miles above the Earth and a French astronaut, Jean-Francois Clervoy, maneuvered a mechanical arm to grab hold of it and stick it in a cargo bay so that, over a period of three days, the 43-foot-long telescope can be fixed.
”There’s nothing like face to face,” John Campbell, the Hubble program manager, is quoted as saying in an AP account of the event. Campbell is right. There is nothing like face to face, and that’s one of the remarkable achievements of the telescope – it has brought human beings face to face with the universe.
Reminders of this are to be found in a breath-taking book, ”The Hand of God,” which features one full-colored photo after another of images from space, including a number Hubble started shipping our way nearly a decade ago.
You will see here, for instance, Cat’s Eye Nebulae, NGG6543.
In the center of the photo is a radiant white speck that turns out to be a dying star in the constellation Draco, some 3,000 light years away. It is thinly framed by dabs of bright blue, and this is all surrounded, then, by gobs of whirling red – interstellar dust and gases – with a slice of green at the bottom.
Each page offers something equally extraordinary, such as a photo of Cygnus Loop Nebula, found in the constellation Cygnus the Swan. This could be a work of abstract art. There are streaks of purple-green-yellow, which it seems are a blast wave of a supernova explosion. They do not just fade away, but terminate in fiery splendor.
In an introductory essay in the book, Sharon Begley, an editor at Newsweek, writes that the discoveries of astronomy are not just aiding science in its understanding of the cosmos, but offer ”a sense of wonder and of awe; a sense that the world is rational; a sense, even, of the sacred; hints to believers of the nature and character of God.”
If all goes well in the astronauts’ repair effort, Hubble should have another 10 years of life, 10 years in which to be our special window on a universe that overwhelms us with its glory. We wish them luck.