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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hubble Eye Sheds Light On Cosmos

WASHINGTON -- The Hubble Space Telescope has glimpsed the dawn of the universe, confirmed the existence of black holes and showed the birth and death of stars -- not bad for a craft whose early life was so plagued by problems that wags called it the "Hubble Space Paperweight."

After more than five years in orbit, the $1.5 billion telescope has more than lived up to the promise offered by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration before its launch April 25, 1990. "Of all the observatories that exist in the world, only the Hubble Space Telescope can answer some of the most perplexing astronomical questions," NASA boasted in an early brochure.

Ed Weiler, who started working on Hubble in 1978 as soon as the U.S. Congress approved the money, and who stayed on to be the program's chief scientist, gets a lot of satisfaction from making good on that claim. "I lived through all the bad media ... people started accusing us of a lot of hype before launch," Weiler said. "But we actually did more than we set out to do."

Hubble's most recent achievements, unveiled in January at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in San Antonio, include the most detailed view of the universe ever assembled; an image showing the death of a star like Earth's sun; and a view of a warped disk about a star that may indicate the presence of a planet, the first such indication outside our solar system.

These successes followed a troubled beginning replete with embarassing glitches, the biggest of which needed the equivalent of surgery in space: Hubble's main mirror had a spherical aberration due to a manufacturing error, and that meant blurred vision. The repair mission took a record five space walks by the crew of Space Shuttle Endeavour.

For Weiler, the next milestone will come in 1997 when a new infrared camera is installed. That could let Hubble take the first pictures of a planet outside our solar system.

. Two weeks after launch, astronomers realized the bus-sized spacecraft was wiggling slightly in space, which they feared would give images comparable to those created by a camera held by a shaky hand. It also quivered when it headed into sunlight, possibly a reaction of the solar panels that power the telescope. And a mathematical mistake pointed Hubble's fine guidance sensor and star tracker system in the wrong direction.

These three glitches were solved from the ground but a bigger problem needed the equivalent of surgery in space: