Magnificent Window on the Cosmos

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NOW that the Hubble Space Telescope has returned its first test pictures, let's celebrate a magnificent engineering achievement as well as an astronomical breakthrough. Hubble is expected to give astronomers the sharpest views of our universe they have ever had. Its discoveries may well revolutionize at least some parts of astrophysics. But at this point it is the instrument itself that deserves attention.

This is the most complex robot satellite yet to orbit our planet. It must track its targets with rock-steady precision even though it is falling freely around Earth. Its near-perfect 94.5-inch mirror serves a variety of detectors that collect data for transmission to the ground.

Human operators do not directly control this complex mechanism. They must work through computer codes that tell Hubble what tasks to perform. Moreover, while astronauts will occasionally service the satellite, its components must work for years unattended.

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There is no wonder that it has taken several weeks to check out the observatory as glitches have developed and to bring it to the point of taking those first test pictures. The engineers who designed Hubble and those now carefully bringing the observatory into operation deserve the thanks of the nation, as well as of astronomers.

For those not in the astronomical community, the first pictures could seem a bit like baby photos shown off by a proud new parent - interesting but hardly arresting. Yet, as with a baby, the importance lies in what the ``child'' may become. And the Hubble observatory has enormous potential to enrich our knowledge of the cosmos.

This is just the first of four ``Great Observatories'' that the United States plans to orbit. A satellite to study the universe by means of gamma rays is ready for launch later this year. It should be followed by X-ray and infrared observatories.

This suite of observatories, which scientists from many countries will use, is a major commitment to advancing astronomical knowledge. It should be useful well into the 21st century. We look forward to its early fruits as the Hubble instruments begin their explorations.

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