A set of telescopes stares into space from the cargo bay of space shuttle Columbia in December 1990. The telescopes were part of Astro-1, the shuttle's first major astronomy mission. The shuttle turned out to be a poor platform for telescopes; free-flying space telescopes have a more stable view of the sky. [NASA]
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LAUNCH CONTROL: 2, 1, zero, and lift-off! Lift-off of the space shuttle Columbia and Astro-1 for an insight into the lifestyle of the galaxies.
A quarter-century ago this week, Columbia was transformed from a space shuttle to a space observatory. It carried a set of telescopes known as Astro-1 — three to study ultraviolet light, and a fourth to study X-rays.
These wavelengths are produced by some of the hottest and most powerful objects in the universe, such as disks of gas around black holes and the remnants of stellar explosions. Earth’s atmosphere absorbs ultraviolet and X-rays, though, so the only way to study them is from space.
Astro-1 was the first shuttle mission dedicated to astronomical observations. Astronauts operated the telescopes around the clock. And despite a failed pointing system, they got observations of 130 objects. The flight led NASA to launch a second Astro mission five years later.
Yet the shuttle wasn’t a great platform for looking at the stars. Even something as simple as jogging on the treadmill jiggled the telescopes, and thruster firings produced clouds of gas that could coat mirrors or fog observations.
Instead, the shuttle was much better at delivering and repairing telescopes. It launched Hubble and two other of NASA’s Great Observatories. Shuttle astronauts repaired and upgraded Hubble several times, and revived a dead Sun-watching satellite as well — helping these free-flying telescopes to keep their eyes on the stars.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2015