NEW YORK - It's hard to tell who's more excited for Hubble's upcoming facelift ? the scientists who will benefit from the data the telescope collects, or the public who will enjoy the pretty pictures.
The aging NASA/ESA (European Space Agency) Hubble Space Telescope is set to receive its final upgrade from seven astronauts due to launch May 11 aboard the space shuttle Atlantis. When their work is completed, the observatory should work better than ever and last for at least another five years.
"I'm very excited about it!" said Fernando Ribeiro, a Brazilian educator and artist who runs the Web site SaveTheHubble.com. "It's what we've been fighting for all these years. I think this is going to mean a lot both to science and to the public."
Telescope rally cry
Ribeiro founded his site in 2004 after the shuttle servicing mission, originally scheduled to launch in 2004, was cancelled over safety concerns in the wake of the 2003 Columbia disaster. Ribeiro collected some 5,500 signatures on a petition to reverse the decision, which would have left Hubble without new instruments and repairs needed to keep it alive.
Other Hubble fans (often called "Hubble Huggers") founded similar sites such as SavingHubble.com, which sells Hubble T-shirts.
NASA credits this outpouring of public support for the mission as part of the reason it was resuscitated.
"I guess they realized that the American society was willing to foot the bill and take the risk," Ribeiro told SPACE.com. "I do believe it is the greatest scientific instrument ever made. Hubble Space Telescope connects the general public with the infinite wonders of the cosmos and makes us feel part of a bigger universe."
Other supporters use similarly gushing terms to describe the observatory.
"Telescopes will come and go. Hubble too will one day end her tour of duty ? but God I LOVE this thing ? this inanimate object has given us images that have been some of the MOST breathtaking, awe inspiring images I have ever seen," wrote commenter "womanspirit" in April 2009 on a message board on the news aggregator Topix.com.
The people?s telescope
Different theories abound for why this scientific instrument has so captivated the public. Obviously, the stunning pictures are hard not to love. But this telescope has worked its way into people's lives unlike any other observatory. Perhaps its long working life ? 19 years and counting ? has something to do with it.
"When something has that longevity people come of age in the lifetime of the telescope," said Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. "No other telescope can you say that about. It's not only that its making discoveries, taking beautiful pictures, but the serviceability of it has made it a part of the American landscape, made it iconic."
Its name recognition also easily beats out most, if not all, other scientific instruments.
"Everyone's heard of the Hubble telescope," Tyson told SPACE.com. "People came to long for the next image that awaits them. I can tell you that I don?t know any other field, any other telescope, where the images that it produced did not even require a caption for you to lose yourself in its beauty."
Hubble?s fan club
Hubble images are enjoyable even if you don't know or care what a planetary nebula or a dwarf galaxy is. And for those who are curious, the telescope helps provides a visual representation of astronomical objects that can be otherwise hard to fathom.
"It provides an image of something that's usually abstract," said Lauren Esposito of New York.
Hubble?s cosmic images are so famous that many people can often name a favorite Hubble photo off the top of their heads. For example, New Yorker Nicolas Cinquegrani said the image of the Horsehead nebula, with its iconic hose-shaped dark cloud over pink gas, is his favorite.
"Even though I'm not a scientist, I do care" about the fate of the telescope, he said.
And Hubble's need to be repaired and upgraded over the years may even add to its lovability.
Many can date their personal connection to the telescope to the 1993 shuttle Endeavour rescue mission. Seven astronauts completed difficult and dangerous spacewalks to install hardware to fix a mirror flaw that had initially rendered the telescope's pictures fuzzy.
In many people's eyes, the successful repair demonstrated American technological ingenuity, as well as our ability to overcome challenges and turn a tough situation around.
"I think it affects people's sense of accomplishment," said Andy Kim of New York.
- New Show: Hubble's Universe: The Final Shuttle Service Call
- Image Gallery - Hubble's Latest Views of the Universe: Part 1, Part 2
- Hubble FAQ: Inside the Last Space Telescope Repair Mission