- Since its launch in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has made revolutionary achievements in astronomy.
- The new James Webb space telescope is popular, but Hubble has skills, such as capturing visible and ultraviolet light, that Webb does not have.
- The two telescopes will work together to study the cosmos in even greater detail.
For three decades, the Hubble Space Telescope has provided breathtaking cosmic images.
While the world is raving about NASA’s new James Webb space telescope, the aging Hubble remains an astronomical workhorse, providing key observations of the universe as Webb soaks up the spotlight.
But as a pair, the telescopes are even more powerful than they are alone. Together, the space-based telescopes will give astronomers a more complete picture and understanding of galaxies, stars and planets than ever before.
“The Webb Space Telescope is good news for astronomy and good news for the Hubble Space Telescope, as Webb and Hubble enhance and complement each other’s unique capabilities,” Jennifer Wiseman, senior project scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, told Insider.
“Hubble’s scientific return is expected to be strong, and even improved over this decade as Webb and Hubble reveal the universe together.”
Ever since Galileo Galilei built his telescope in 1609, astronomers have pointed these tools toward the sky. Astronomers have developed these instruments significantly over time, allowing them to see even deeper into the universe.
But their observations were limited by Earth’s atmosphere, which absorbs light before reaching ground-based telescopes. Enter space telescopes. Sitting high above the distortion of Earth’s atmosphere and away from light-polluted cities, observatories like Hubble provide, as NASA puts it, “an unobstructed view of the universe.”
Hubble was launched on April 24, 1990 with the space shuttle Discovery. Though originally supposed to serve only 15 years, it still zooms through space about 340 miles above Earth’s surface, orbiting the planet every 97 minutes.
“Hubble is in good technical shape, even 32 years after launch, with a strong array of scientific instruments on board,” Wiseman said.
Over the years, Hubble’s images have played an important role in our understanding of the universe. It provided evidence of supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies and measurements of the expansion rate of the Universe. Hubble also helped discover and characterize the mysterious dark energy that caused that expansion by pulling galaxies apart. One of the most iconic achievements is the 1995 photo of Pillars of Creation, which shows newly formed stars glowing in the Eagle Nebula.
And Hubble continues to take stunning photos even after Webb began providing images of his scientific observations in July. Recently, Hubble captured the star-studded NGC 6540, a globular cluster in the constellation Sagittarius.
Both Webb and Hubble are space-based telescopes, but they differ in many ways. Hubble will see ultraviolet light, visible light and a small amount of infrared, while Webb will mainly see the universe in infrared.
Webb — which is 100 times more powerful than Hubble — will be able to peer at objects whose light was emitted more than 13.5 billion years ago, which Hubble cannot see. This is because this light has shifted to the infrared wavelengths that Webb was specifically designed to detect.
But because Webb was designed this way, it will also miss celestial bodies in the visible and ultraviolet light that Hubble can see.
“In fact, Hubble is the only major class observatory that has access to UV wavelengths,” Wiseman said.
Though Webb has been dubbed Hubble’s successor, the two space-based observatories will work together to reveal the universe together.
Wiseman points out how they will provide insight into how stars are born in the clouds of cosmic dust and scattered across most galaxies. “For example, Hubble can detect and analyze in detail the hot blue and UV light blazing from star-forming nebulae in nearby galaxies,” Wiseman said, adding: “That can be compared to the power of star formation in the early universe as detected with Webb. .”
The two space telescopes will also combine their gazes to peer into the atmospheres of other worlds, looking for signs that they may harbor life.
Astronomers usually look for the ingredients that support Earth’s life — liquid water, a continuous source of energy, carbon and other elements — when looking for life-supporting planets. In 2001, Hubble made the first direct measurement of the atmosphere of an exoplanet.
“In our own galaxy, the understanding of planets inside and outside our own solar system will be greatly improved with the Webb and Hubble combination,” Wiseman said, adding: “Signatures of water, methane and other atmospheric constituents will be identified using the combined spectroscopic capabilities of Webb and Hubble.”
And while Webb may be seen as the shiny new toy in astronomy, Hubble’s unique abilities in capturing visible and ultraviolet light still make it a much sought-after tool for understanding the cosmos. “Hubble is actually at its highest scientific achievement right now,” Wiseman said. That’s thanks to a team of NASA technical experts on the ground who monitor and quickly address technical challenges that arise, she added.
“The number of proposals from scientists around the world looking to use Hubble has risen to more than 1,000 a year, and only the top fraction of this has been selected for actual observations,” Wiseman said, adding: “Many of these complementary Webb proposed -observations. “