Orbiting telescope to peer at edge of universe
Danbury, Conn. — PUL Brickmeier exudes the sort of understated pride you might expect from any new parent. An engineer with Perkin-Elmer, an optics firm based here, he has spent every waking day for the past seven years fretting about the professional challenge of his life.
"A simple glance just won't tell you the effort that went into this thing," he assures visitors.
The object of this efforts is sequestered behind a plate glass dust barrier in a giant "clean room." Plasticsuited technicians swarm about the 43-foot hulk, wordlessly checking and rechecking its external features.
It is the optical heart of the Hubble Space Telescope, unveiled for the first time Tuesday. Four billion man-hours and $373 million in the making, it is just waiting to usher in a new era in astronomy.
Sometime in August 1986, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Hubble Space Telescope -- named after astronomer Edwin Hubble, who discovered the expanding universe -- will be hoisted into a 310-mile orbit by the space shuttle. Up there, above the atmospheric haze that hampers the vision of its terrestrial cousins, the space telescope is destined to expand the visible universe by about 350 times.
Such observing power has whetted the palates of scientists worldwide who think the space telescope may provide important clues to the age of the universe and the evolution of galaxies. It may even be able to image planets that might exist in nearby solar systems -- something that has yet to be done.
But the most exciting discoveries, many scientists say, will likely be of things no one has yet thought of.
"Serendipity is going to play the big role in all this," observes Dr. Arthur Code, an astronomer at the University of Wisconsin. "If I tell you what the most exciting discoveries will be, you can probably write them off your list because I knew enough to mention them."
If NASA's plans continue as scheduled, the next decade will see four more US observatories in orbit, each probing different subtleties of the universe which are now being lost to the blanket of gas surrounding Earth.
"This is certainly going to be seen as a golden age in astronomy," says Dr. Charles J. Pellerin Jr., director of astrophysics at NASA.
"A lot of people are thinking that the time may be right for an overthrow of physical law," he says. "There are these crazy things that we can't explain like quasars. How do you get the energy of a billion suns crammed into an area less than the size of our solar system? For an answer, astronomy may hold the key."
Providing that astronomical key, however, has been replete with a variety of early problems.
The optical telescope assembly (OTA) proudly displayed by Perkin-Elmer came in three years behind schedule and at least $300 million over the initial budget estimate.
Many of the troubles, Perkin-Elmer and NASA officials point out, were of the sort that frequently appear when rolling back the state of the art -- problems of fashioning the precision instruments and maintaining quality control.
But Perkin-Elmer wasn't alone with scheduling problems. Lockheed, the California aerospace company building the systems support module -- the container the OTA will sit in -- will submit a final bill five times its estimate in 1976 when work began. As a result, the final development tab for the space telescope will come in at $1.1 billion, or nearly double the early estimates.
For that kind of money, engineers have conjured up an instrument of almost numbing precision. The telescope's 94-inch primary mirror is said to be the most fastidiously made of any its size. If the mirror were the size of Earth, its surface would not deviate more than five inches from perfection.
The mechanisms that point the instrument are no less strict: The telescope's guidance system will be locking onto targets about the size of a firefly seen at 10,000 miles.
All of which made the designer's task more difficult. The discovery that an exceedingly fine film of dust hadsettled on the mirror while it sat in storage at the Perkin-Elmer facility worried many scientists. They thought it might hamper the ability of the telescope to "see" ultraviolet light, little of which penetrates the atmosphere.
There were also serious problems with the guidance systems. After they had been designed, scientists decided they would have to be more precise than previously imagined.
That sent the designers back to the boards.
In addition, NASA officials say, progress was slowed by the Department of Defense capping the number of NASA personnel working at Perkin-Elmer and Lockheed because of work on classified military projects.
An upshot of these delays was that, by January of last year, the project at Perkin-Elmer was falling a day further behind each day. "Essentially we weren't getting anywhere," recalls James Odom, NASA's manager of the OTA project.
"In hindsight we'd make sure we had more people involved earlier on," he adds , "but in the end I think it will have been worth it."
So do the roughly 3,000 astronomers who have shown interest in gaining access time to the telescope. One point of concern to many scientists is whether there will be enough time given to individual projects to allow the sort of precedent-shattering discoveries of which the telescope is thought capable.
Even though space is clear and black, the space telescope won't be able to observe 24 hours a day. Spinning around Earth once every 93 minutes, it won't be able to observe when it is in the sun's path, for instance. Only about a third of its time will be spent observing.
"The great finds aren't made with snapshot approach," says Wisconsin's Dr. Code. Many of the fundamental advances have come from tedious and time-consuming surveys of the sky.
"For the first time, you'll be seeing astronomers working in terms instead of going it alone. It'll be the only way to get major projects accomplished."