It’s revolutionised astrophysics and human understanding of the scale of the Universe, but the Hubble Space telescope’s illustrious career since its launch in 1990 is almost at an end. Although NASA has no official de-commissioning date – Hubble is still returning 10TB of new data every year – it’s never going to be able to peer into the edges of the Universe and photograph the dawn of time. First, it orbits Earth, so its view is blocked by the Sun for half the time. Second, what astronomers need is a space telescope that’s built to detect the infra-red light that the first-born galaxies now emit.
That means a bigger, colder and more sensitive space telescope that orbits from much, much further away.
Despite nearly 13,000 science papers having been written using its data, Hubble’s twenty-fifth anniversary is also doubling as its retirement party. With all upgrades in its past, its only visitor now will be a robot to push it towards Earth, where it will burn-up in the atmosphere.
During the three billion miles it’s travelled around Earth, the images it’s taken have totally changed science and astronomy. So much so, in fact, that its own success has led to its imminent replacement. Although it’s well capable of taking photographs in visible ultraviolet light, Hubble was the first space telescope to detect infrared light, and it’s been in this infrared spectrum where its biggest discoveries have been made.