30 years of Hubble: The world’s most famous telescope takes centre stage in Sony BBC Earth’s new show

Executive producer Steve Crabtree and Bethany Downer of the European Space Agency talk about the legacy of the Hubble and its inevitable future

Karan Pillai Published :  25th December 2020 06:00 AM   |   Published :   |  25th December 2020 06:00 AM
A collage of iconic shots taken by the Hubble telescope (centre)

A collage of iconic shots taken by the Hubble telescope (centre)

Mankind’s journey in space exploration has been defined by immense risk and resilience, featuring gigantic machines designed to discover new interstellar worlds. One of the machines is the Hubble telescope, and although it doesn’t travel extraordinarily long distances, it has so far managed to show us more of the universe than any other man-made instrument out there. 

However, as they say, all good things come to an end. And, so will the Hubble. With scientific experts giving it just 10 more years to function, Sony BBC Earth wasted no time in putting up a celebratory feature on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of this iconic symbol of technological innovation. Titled Hubble: The Wonders of Space Revealed, the show features scientists and astronomers who work on the telescope on a daily basis, and also experts from previous service missions.  

To find out more about the relevance of the show and information about the future of Hubble, we caught up with Steve Crabtree, executive producer, and Bethany Downer, the Hubble Public Information Officer of the European Space Agency, who is soon to become its Hubble Chief Communications Officer. In a fascinating conversation, they explain to us the various achievements of the Hubble, and how its role will evolve once more modern telescopes are designed in the future. Excerpts: 

Bethany, how excited are you for your new role and what are the new responsibilities coming to your plate?

Bethany Downer

Bethany Downer: The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA. My role as Chief Communications Officer of the Hubble Space Telescope for the European Space Agency is a position that I feel very fortunate to have. My job is to oversee the content on the ESA/Hubble website (SpaceTelescope.org) and all matters pertaining to outreach and communications for the Hubble Space Telescope for the European Space Agency. I coordinate a talented international team that works together to create various outreach products for ESA/Hubble that communicate Hubble’s science results and imagery. This includes press releases that highlight new Hubble discoveries, Pictures of the Week, regular announcements and the popular Hubble cast video series. I also coordinate special Hubble activities in Europe. For example, in April 2020 we celebrated the telescope’s 30th anniversary with various special public engagement initiatives. The Hubble Space Telescope is well known by the general public, so it’s a special opportunity to focus on ways to highlight the science behind Hubble’s beautiful images and the work of European astronomers who are uncovering new science discoveries with Hubble data.

Do you believe that this show on the Hubble is more relevant than ever, considering that the James Webb telescope is said to become operational next year, and might potentially elevate the public consciousness about space telescopes in general?

Steve Crabtree

Steve Crabtree: Hubble is 30 years old, and scientists don’t think it’s going to get to its 40th birthday. It obviously hasn’t been serviced for years now. And so, I think when James Webb comes online, hopefully, later in 2021, I think it may elevate people’s understanding even more. James Webb is a massive degree more powerful than the Hubble and I can’t wait to see what it’s going to be able to show us.

Bethany: It has been delightful to see the many programmes that have been developed in conjunction with Hubble’s 30th anniversary this year. Shows like this highlight the telescope’s remarkable history, including the missions to repair the telescope in its early years, and its impactful contributions to science and astronomy. I encourage everyone to tune into Sony BBC Earth and reflect on its technological and scientific achievements over three decades of operations! 

How did you go about curating the stories and choosing the people featured on this show?
We sat down for a long time along with the director, and we tried to work out how to structure a programme such as this. And what we settled on was to tell the story through each of the service missions. There were five in total and each of them led to a new discovery. So, the first job was to make sure that we had astronauts from each mission. Because otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to tell that story. And luckily, they very kindly gave us their time. 

We just focused on one of the discoveries that each service mission had led to, and then that helped us decide which sciences to pick. Obviously, in real life, there were hundreds of discoveries, but in an hour-long show, you can only pick one. As the film plays, each discovery is further out into the universe until the last one, which is basically the farthest the Hubble can see. So, there’s quite a little narrative there as well.

From the iconic Deep Field shot to the Supernovae time-lapse, how much has Hubble’s technical capabilities evolved?

Bethany: Hubble’s physical components and instruments have not been physically updated since the fifth and final Servicing Mission in 2009. However, over the past 30 years, astronomers have better understood how to use its data, and have discovered what the telescope is capable of observing. By having 30 years of data, astronomers can dig through its vast archive to find new discoveries and observe different objects over time — this is quite special.
For example, the Hubble data recently revealed that the Stingray Nebula has faded over just the past two decades, witnessing a swift rate of change in a planetary nebula, which is quite rare.

During one of the Hubble service missions

Who are the core team that operates the Hubble?

Bethany: The science operations are coordinated and conducted by the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, USA. The overall management of daily on-orbit operations is based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Greenbelt, USA. ESA’s contribution to the Hubble Project guarantees European scientists’ access to 15 per cent of Hubble observing time. Hubble time is allocated on scientific merit by an international panel that includes European experts. Over Hubble’s lifetime, European astronomers have, in open competition, been allocated more than the guaranteed 15 per cent, and in some years the proportion has been closer to 25 per cent.

During your time at the ESA, what have been Hubble’s most significant achievements?

Bethany: The most notable achievements so far include Hubble’s 30th anniversary in April 2020 and the stunning new anniversary image that was unveiled, which features the giant nebula NGC 2014 and its neighbour NGC 2020. They together form a part of a vast star-forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud, roughly 1,63,000 light-years away. 

Each year, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope dedicates a small portion of its precious observing time to take a special anniversary image, showcasing beautiful and meaningful objects. These images continue to challenge scientists with exciting surprises and fascinate the public with ever more evocative observations.

This year, the Hubble also captured a one-of-a-kind time-lapse of a supernova that was developed by the ESA/Hubble team. The video captures a fading supernova in the galaxy NGC 2525, over the course of one year. The NASA/ESA’s Hubble Space Telescope has tracked the fading light of a supernova in the spiral galaxy NGC 2525, located 70 million light-years away. Supernovae, like this one, can be used as cosmic tape measures, allowing astronomers to calculate the distance to their galaxies. Hubble captured these images as a part of one of its major investigations, measuring the expansion rate of the universe, which can in turn help answer fundamental questions about its very nature.

Additionally, in September last year, University College London (UCL) researchers found out that data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope captured water vapour in the atmosphere of a super-Earth within a habitable zone. K2-18b, eight times the mass of Earth, is now the only planet orbiting a star outside the Solar System, or exoplanet known to have both water and temperatures that could support life.

The original Deep Field photo taken by the Hubble

For people who love space but are not scientifically adept, how can you describe Hubble's contribution to our understanding of our universe and its relevance to the evolution of the human race?

Bethany: Hubble has made many important contributions to science since its launch in 1990. With many thousand scientific papers attributed to it, Hubble is by some measures the most productive scientific instrument ever built. For those not familiar with astronomy, these are just some of the impactful contributions to science Hubble has made:

The Hubble Deep Fields: Hubble has observed the furthest galaxies and the most ancient starlight ever seen by humankind

Age and size of the Universe: Hubble has calculated the age of the cosmos and discovered the Universe is expanding at an ever-faster rate

Stars: Hubble has revolutionized our understanding of the birth and death of stars, and has observed them they form from huge dust clouds

Solar System: Hubble has helped us to better understand planets in our own system, as well as asteroids and comets.

Exoplanets: When Hubble was launched in 1990, we only had proof of the planets that exist in our own solar system. We now know of thousands of other planets (exoplanets), of which many have been found and researched by Hubble. Although the study of exoplanets was not one of Hubble’s primary science goals when it was developed, it has since become a pioneer in this field. Hubble also made the first-ever image of an exoplanet in visible light and spotted planetary systems as they form around exoplanets.

Black holes: Hubble has found that black holes lie at the heart of all large galaxies. It has also studied the discs that surround black holes.

The early Universe: Hubble has helped us to study the early Universe back to when it was just a few hundred million years old. The upcoming NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope will take us back even further!

Belly of a cosmic whale

How will Hubble’s role change once the James Webb telescope becomes operational?

Bethany: The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is an international project led by NASA with its partners, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency. Due to be launched in 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope is expected to have a profound and far-reaching impact on astrophysics as Hubble did. Europe’s contributions to the JWST include the NIRSpec and MIRI instruments, the launch vehicle to send the telescope into space (the Ariane 5), and staff to support mission operations. Astronomers from ESA Member States will have access to the telescope’s observations in the same way they do today on the Hubble Space Telescope. 

Hubble’s operations will still continue as they do today, as JWST will not be a replacement of Hubble. The biggest difference is that it will be optimised for observing infrared light (with limited visible light capabilities), while Hubble is optimised for visible and UV light (with limited infrared capabilities).

With a bigger mirror and more advanced instruments, JWST will exceed Hubble’s ability to image in the infrared. This means it will be better at looking through dust and gas clouds, which is useful for studying star formation. It will also be better equipped to make major contributions to the study of the very early Universe.

Centaurus A galaxy

Where do you see Hubble in the next ten years?

Steve: Well, this is a sad thing. I mean, it’s still operational now. But if anything goes wrong with it, it can’t be fixed, because there’s no shuttle special to go and take astronauts to fix it. So, it will start to malfunction and shut down. And who knows, it might last another 10 years. But certainly, when we were speaking to scientists, they kind of feel that it’s in its last few years of operation now. 
So, one of the emotional parts of the film, I found, is the reliance of Hubble on the Space Shuttle. It was even designed to fit inside the space shuttles. So, once the Space Shuttle Program was retired, no astronauts could ever go to Hubble to repair it or upgrade it ever again. And so, I think, it’s going to be up in the sky, hopefully, for years to come. But the moment it starts malfunctioning, there’s nothing anyone can do to fix it unless you can fix it from the Earth. I mean, it would be a kind of a natural, mechanical malfunction. 

So hopefully it will still be giving us some amazing, wonderful pictures. But, you know, I think it was originally designed to last about 15 years anyway, so the fact that it’s 30 years old is remarkable in itself.

Hubble: Wonders of Space Revealed airs on December 26, at 9 pm, on Sony BBC Earth.


(You can contact the writer via mail at mkpillai90@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @karan_pillai)