WASHINGTON — The defective Hubble space telescope can capture clearer, more valuable images than scientists had thought, and computers can be used to sharpen the pictures even more, NASA has announced. Elated astronomers released pictures the telescope snapped of a star cluster, demonstrating the observatory's potential and showing that the cluster is packed with many more young stars than previously known.
``The images that we're going to release ... have exciting scientific content and demonstrate that HST [the Hubble space telescope] remains very, very much alive,'' said project scientist Edward Weiler at a National Aeronautics and Space Administration news conference on Monday.
Although buoyed by the telescope's capacity, the scientists stressed the instrument is still below intended ability.
``Some of the most important science in the view of most astronomers, the science that we talked about all these years - the age of the universe, the expansion of the universe - those sorts of things we still believe are not possible,'' said James Westphal of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. The reason: Computer enhancement is less effective on fainter, more distant objects. The snapshots referred to during the press conference were of a star cluster about 160,000 light years away.
The $1.5 billion telescope was designed to be the most powerful instrument of its kind, able to answer fundamental questions about the universe by studying and photographing celestial bodies deep in the cosmos from its orbit 380 miles above Earth.
But about a month after the 12-ton telescope was ferried into space by the space shuttle Atlantis in April, engineers discovered one of its mirrors apparently was shaped incorrectly, preventing the telescope from focusing sharply.
The blunder, apparently caused by an error in an instrument used to measure the mirror when it was being ground in 1981, set off a storm of criticism of the space agency.
Officials maintained the telescope could still gather valuable information by using instruments unaffected by the flaw to study ultraviolet light. But the telescope's long-awaited ability to produce exciting pictures would have to wait until repairs are made in 1993.