“The Camera that Saved Hubble” Coming to the Smithsonian

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By the summer of 1990, NASA's "Hubble troubles" had Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski outraged. "They have had 10 years to put this together and spent $2.8 billion to be able to get this right," she told an Associated Press reporter. "Now we find that the Hubble telescope has a cataract."

The surgery to repair the telescope's defect involved a replacement part—"the camera that saved Hubble." After an exciting space walk last week to replace it, the retired camera is slated to go on view at the National Air and Space Museum in late fall. A fitful conclusion to the camera's noble tale.

NASA launched the Hubble telescope in April 1990 with the promise that it would bring in a new era of astronomical discovery. The shuttle that delivered Hubble into space had already returned by the time scientists and engineers realized that there was a problem—a defective main mirror.

When Hubble transmitted its first blurred images back to earth on May 20, 1990, Ed Weiler, Hubble's program scientist at the time, described the feeling "like climbing to the top of Mount Everest and then suddenly, within a couple of months, sinking to the bottom of the Dead Sea."

For three years, the word Hubble at a cocktail party brought a room full of chuckles. As late-night comedians poked fun at the bus-sized "tin can" orbiting the planet, NASA scientists were busy building a camera to compensate for the defect.

The piano-sized Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 was installed on December 2, 1993. And by January, 1994, Hubble was beginning to earn its credibility back. At a meeting of the American Astronomical Society, NASA astronomers identified a neighborhood of aging stars, known as white dwarfs, in a dense field of other stars. (These stars would later reveal the universe's birthday.)

Public adoration for Hubble grew as it sent back pictures of stars being born in the Eagle Nebula and colliding galaxies. The second camera is credited with "saving Hubble," not just from the original defect, but also after the technical failure of the Advanced Camera for Surveys, installed in 2002.

The Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 was removed on May 14, 2009, (no thanks to a stubborn bolt), and returned to Earth aboard the space shuttle Atlantis. It was replaced with the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 3, which promises to take even higher quality photographs than its predecessor.

The retired camera will arrive at the Air and Space Museum some time in October or November. "I really look forward to the moment when I get to walk up to it in the Smithsonian and say, 'that is the camera that saved Hubble,'" says Ed Weiler, a NASA official.

This post has been updated to reflect the fact that the Hubble mirror was defective and not the camera. The final quote was previously attributed incorrectly to John Trauger.

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