Hubble’s “Savior” Camera Now on Display

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Hubble’s WFPC-2, now on display at Air and Space

—Picture copyright Smithsonian Institution

“The difference between an artifact and an instrument is that, now that it’s an artifact, you can’t touch it anymore.”

So General Jack Dailey told astronaut John Grunsfeld during the opening of a new gallery in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum—now home to several significant artifacts from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Just a few short months ago, Grunsfeld was part of the shuttle mission sent to repair and upgrade the aging Hubble. The crew’s tasks included removing the Wide-Field Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC-2) and the Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement (COSTAR) so they could be replaced with more advanced instruments.

(See some of the first pictures from the upgraded Hubble.)

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COSTAR, sometimes called Hubble’s contact lenses

—Picture by Eric Long/NASM, copyright Smithsonian Institution

Air and Space made the phone booth-size COSTAR part of its new gallery, called Moving Beyond Earth, a high-tech setup full of interactives, computer feeds, and huge visual projections.

The gallery also houses the HST Power Control Unit Trainer, a life-size replica of Hubble’s electrical nerve center. Grunsfeld was among the astronauts who used the trainer to practice replacing the unit during a 2002 servicing mission.

—Picture by Eric Long/NASM, copyright Smithsonian Institution

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WFPC-2, meanwhile, gets a place of honor in the museum’s Space Hall. The camera, about the size of a baby grand piano, “turned Hubble into the Great American comeback story,” NASA’s Edward J. Weiler told reporters during the gallery opening.

The now beloved space telescope had a few early setbacks, including the grim discovery shortly after launch that its primary mirror was deformed, making its science images pretty much useless.

WFPC-2 got installed during the first-ever Hubble servicing mission in December 1993, complete with its own built-in corrective optics that compensated for the faulty mirror.

(FYI, new instruments installed since then also carried their own corrective optics, eventually rendering COSTAR obsolete. It was removed to make room for a device called a spectrograph, designed to study the origins of the universe.)

The same mission added COSTAR, a bundle of tiny mirrors that sent corrected, focused light to the rest of Hubble’s instruments. But WFPC-2 specifically went on to provide scientists with some of the most iconic Hubble pictures that both dazzled the public and offered new insights into the universe.

“Museums remind us of the choices we make as a culture.”

—David DeVorkin

(See WFPC-2’s last “pretty picture” before the camera was removed in May 2009.)

“Hubble has more than fulfilled its promise,” said senior curator of space history David DeVorkin.

But astronaut Grunsfeld, who joked about his title of “chief Hubble hugger,” reminded the audience that it wasn’t really the instruments that saved Hubble, it was the people.

“Museums remind us of the choices we make as a culture,” DeVorkin added. During Hubble’s development, people made the choice to build a space telescope that could see objects ten billion times fainter than the human eye.

People also made the choice to make that telescope something that could be regularly serviced rather than used until it broke and then abandoned.

And when Hubble suffered from its initial setback, people made the choice to find ways to fix what was quickly labeled as a national failure.

“It’s a message of persistence,” Dailey said. “Don’t quit. Hubble is a perfect example of that.”

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