HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA — With the news that NASA is considering a robotic mission to replace a cancelled Space Shuttle service call, the Hubble telescope - one of history's most important scientific instruments - may yet have a few years added to its service life. Of course, even if the telescope were to be shut down tomorrow, the contributions its discoveries have made to science (and the public awareness of that science) are almost beyond calculation. If you've watched TV, surfed the web, or read a magazine in the last 10 years, you've seen Hubble images, and if you'd like a recap of its greatest pics and a glimpse of its uncertain future, the telescope's past discoveries and ongoing developments can be tracked at the Hubble Site.
A production of the Space Telescope Science Institute, The Hubble Site's home page might not win any awards for eye-catching design, but the navigation is easy to follow, and the contents will have visitors forgetting about design after about three clicks of the mouse. Links to the main sections of the site can be found along the top of every page, or (accompanied by a few words of introduction) down the center column of the home page - and any one of these sections could justify a visit for lovers of the starry night. As an educational enterprise, the site also keeps in mind the varying capabilities of diverse online visitors, with many of the multi-media features available in multiple formats (streaming and downloadable, broadband and dial-up compatible), while still images are offered in a variety of file sizes.
The first option in the Hubble Site's index is the NewsCenter, which - rumors of Hubble's death being, for the moment, greatly exaggerated - continues to add new material on a regular basis. At time of writing, the section was featuring new discoveries within the Trifid Nebula, and while one would naturally expect such a story to consist of pertinent facts and perhaps a few pictures, STSI's coverage is a good deal more comprehensive. In this particular case, the Trifid Nebula release included no less than 5 video clips, a collection of "Fast Facts," some basic "Questions & Answers" about the discovery, related links, and 10 still images. (The stills collection for this story offered images in file sizes that ranged from a 14.5 kB standard screen resolution, to a 29 MB file - which translates to a 300 dpi print of about 10.5 inches square.)
And that's just one story. The news archives date all the way back to Hubble's first operational year of 1990, and stories can be explored by date, astronomical category, keywords, or through a Yahoo style directory navigation. The site also invites visitors to register for automatic news updates delivered to their email, and "backgrounds" each story with links to information about Hubble's future as well as external astronomy news sources.
Even more than the news, the most obvious destination for someone visiting the Hubble Site will be the Gallery. Divided into two main sections, the Gallery offers a collection of favorite images in its Showcase (with each image linking to a NewsCenter story and all the aforementioned extras), and also offers some desktop decoration with a choice of forty "wallpapers." (Each wallpaper is available in four different screen resolutions, and, as with the Gallery, each links to a NewsCenter story.)
Discoveries moves beyond still images and into such interactive features as a Flash-based presentation illustrating the upcoming collision between the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies. (You have a few billion years to get your affairs in order.) If you'd rather look into the past, the "Hubble Deep Field" examines a collection of galaxies whose light has taken 10 billion years to approach the Earth and bounce off the mirrors of the space telescope. Sci-Tech looks at the "Nuts and Bolts" of Hubble's systems, instruments, and optics, and offers a behind the scenes investigation of the photographic process (including the reasons behind artificially introducing color into what are originally black-and-white images).
For the younger astronomer, Fun & Games shows surfers how to build their own Hubble telescope - or if they want to think bigger, their own comets and galaxies. And finally, the Reference Desk offers a Glossary, some FAQs (including detailed information about Hubble's abbreviated future), and real-time tracking of the telescope and other satellites, for anyone planning to spend an evening under the stars. With many features appearing in more than one location, visitors who want to be sure they haven't missed anything can take advantage of a site map available though a "search & index" link, but that same repetition of features makes it more than likely that you'll trip across anything you might find interesting.
For a project that got off to such a rocky start, the Hubble telescope has become one of NASA's biggest success stories. It will be a tragedy to lose it before its time, but with luck, it will still be a few years before the Hubble Site transforms from "discovery center" to online memorial.
The Hubble Site can be found at http://www.hubblesite.org/.