Looking into the night sky has always inspired people to question the nature of the universe.

This month, about 150 astronomers or science teams from around the world will find out if they have been chosen to peer deep into the sky using one of the most powerful optical devices yet built - NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.Since getting its lenses upgraded a year ago, the Hubble has been giving scientists new mysteries to investigate, and they have been lining up to use it.

"Just like Sherlock Holmes, what we (scientists) need is a big magnifying glass, and that is the Hubble Telescope," said Duccio Macchetto, an astrophysicist who has been affiliated with the Hubble program since 1975.

Once the butt of late-night comedians' jokes, the formerly fuzzy-eyed Hubble has, in one year, cast into doubt the age of the universe, provided the first concrete evidence of the existence of black holes and left scientists puzzling over how much matter exists in the universe.

It has also found mysterious "hula-hoop" rings around a star that exploded in 1987 and has taken photos that have allowed scientists to measure the diameter of Pluto, the most distant planet in the solar system.

The repaired Hubble was able to watch the Shoemaker-Levy comet pummel Jupiter and has been the first spacecraft to map the surface of Titan, a moon of Saturn, something that three previous fly-by probes couldn't do.

There's more to come. Astronomers are planning to get close-up photos when Mars' orbit takes it near Earth early next year and are awaiting a moment near the end of this decade when Uranus will show the Hubble a side of the planet never before seen.

Astronomers have hundreds of other areas of space they'd like to explore, but there is only one space telescope, so they have to compete to use it.

In August, astronomers submitted about 800 proposals to use the Hubble in 1995. About 20 percent of them will be accepted, and the next year's use of the telescope will be outlined.

The Hubble is in use nearly 24 hours a day, and a recent internal NASA study said it's the most efficient spacecraft the agency has.

The telescope was built under the leadership of the Marshall Space Flight Center but is now controlled by NASA from the Goddard Space Flight Center in Green-belt, Md.

However, its planning and science functions are handled by the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, an agency set up by NASA.

"They treat the Hubble as a spacecraft. We treat it as an observatory," said Helen Hart, an astronomer who sits before computer screens in a darkened room and oversees the data stream coming from space to make sure scientists are getting the information they want.

The institute is located in a modern building on the Johns Hopkins University campus, just down the road from the school's football stadium.

Macchetto, who directs the science programs division for the institute, joked that it is the "brain center, or nerve center, or nerd center."

This is where the Hubble's schedule is planned and where astronomers' requests for viewing time are juggled to make use of the Hubble as efficiently as possible. It orbits the earth once every 95 minutes, so maximizing its time is vital.

"We may do a galaxy in one orbit and a star in the next orbit," Macchetto said.

The institute makes sure the data is coming in properly and then converts the digital stream of ones and zeroes into charts and pictures. Individual researchers use the data they requested privately for one year, and then it is dumped into an archive where other researchers can look at it.

The technical feat of what the Hubble is able to accomplish is daunting. Although it's physically imposing - 13 tons, 43 feet long - it's not all that big a telescope when compared to some on the ground.

The full moon takes up its entire field of vision. The field of view of its camera, which has taken some of the groundbreaking images, is barely bigger than a piece of 35mm film.

Despite having to peer through a relative pinprick, the Hubble is able to see billions of years out into space, and back into time, because it is free of the distortion of the earth's atmosphere.

Other ground telescopes can measure distance to distant galaxies, but the Hubble's forte is the detailed images it can send back.

The latest finding from the Hubble was that it had captured sharp pictures of galaxies formed when the universe was only one-third its current age, something impossible before now.

View Comments

The pictures opened new questions because some of the galaxies seemed to have formed quickly, while others were in shapes a researcher described as "weird."

The pictures wouldn't have been possible without the Hubble's ringside seat on the universe, and further investigations into ancient galaxies are likely to make up a big part of the telescope's viewing time next year.

"We can get pristine pictures showing us detail of what these galaxies look like," said Alan Dressler, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution observatories and one of the scientists who announced the finding about old galaxies.

"It's like suddenly being able to see noses and eyebrows on what were previously blank faces."

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.