This is the sun. It looks like a typical photograph of the sun…until you look a little closer. Astrophotographer Thierry Legault took one of the most amazing pictures I have ever seen. In the lower left quadrant you can see a black spot. That black spot is actually the Space Shuttle Atlantis. If you zoom in, you can actually see two black spots:
Apparently, Legault snapped this photograph as the Atlantis was just minutes away from catching up with the Hubble Space Telescope. This picture is the first of its kind. Because this is the final space shuttle mission to the Hubble telescope, this was the last opportunity to even attempt to capture this image. Zooming in even further, and the image looks even more grainy and stunning:
Ah yes. The Hubble telescope. It’s 19-years-old. It orbits the planet every 97 minutes. It’s sent back over 600,000 images, many of which have forced the re-writing of astronomy textbooks. You could argue that it is one of the most significant scientific devices of our lifetime. But alas, the Hubble Space Telescope is in need of repair, and NASA just sent 7 astronauts on the space shuttle Atlantis (at a cost of $1.4B) to repair the 19-year-old telescope. The Atlantis mission’s goal is to repair the HST and extend its life to 2014, at which point Hubble’s replacement will take over. [Note: The Hubble will be replaced by the James Webb Space Telescope. That’s a post for another day.]
NASA has called it the “most dangerous space shuttle mission yet,” and the reason it’s so dangerous: potential collision with space junk. That’s right. Not only are humans extremely wasteful on earth, but apparently we’ve gotten a head start at polluting space. We don’t even live up there yet, and there is already a ton of junk and debris orbiting the planet (Why wasn’t that a presidential election issue for 2008?).
What kind of junk is orbiting the planet? Oh nothing too serious. Just broken satellites and dead rockets. In orbit, the space shuttle and HST will be traveling at 17,500 mph. I guess if you get hit by a rocket in space, it might leave a bruise. And to make matters worse, the Hubble Space telescope is 350 miles above earth’s surface. Typical space shuttle missions only run about 250 miles up because that’s the orbit of the International Space Station. This perilous mission to fix the Hubble is 100 miles above the space station! Good. Lord.
Oh, and it gets even more dangerous because the crew is supposed to meet up with the Hubble in an area of space that is much more full of clutter than normal areas of space. It’s kind of ironic that the most important space telescope ever launched looks like a trashcan. Quite fittingly, it’s surrounded by space junk. But seriously, it’s no laughing matter. This mission was canceled once before because NASA thought it was too dangerous. I hope these guys and gals feel lucky because they have their work cut out for them. If something bad does happen to them up there, we will basically have 7 astronauts stranded 350 miles above the Earth. If that happens, I hope Tom Hanks and Kevin Bacon have some time open in their schedules – because we’ll need the most amazing space rescue mission ever. Or we’ll need a miracle. Or both.
On a related note: I bet most of you did not know this, but NASA is set to retire the Space Shuttle Program in 2010. In July 2008, NASA announced that there would only be 10 more space shuttle missions (details). Say what you want about NASA and the Space Program, but I’m going to miss the space shuttle. I can’t wait to see what they replace it with. Again, that’s a post for another day.