A View Back Into Time

This image shows a Hubble view of Arp 272, a remarkable collision between two spiral galaxies, NGC 6050 and IC 1179, and is part of the Hercules Galaxy Cluster, located in the constellation of Hercules. The galaxy cluster is part of the Great Wall of clusters and superclusters, the largest known structure in the Universe. Taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and released on its 18th launch anniversary, Thursday, April 24, 2008.
Improvements in telescopes over time mean good lookin' for anyone who stares at the heavens. Now, the best telescope of them all is about to get even better. Martha Teichner takes us stargazing …

As if the sky were calling it, the Space Shuttle Atlantis made its slow and stately way across a perfect Florida dawn to the launch pad.

Tomorrow, if all goes well, it will be making its way toward the Hubble Space Telescope one last time, to repair it, upgrade it, and give it at least another five years of life - to install a new camera that will allow us to see even more spectacular pictures from even farther into deep space.

Call it celestial symmetry - the mission is taking place 400 years after Galileo first turned a telescope toward the night sky.

At the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Teichner was shown one of only two of Galileo's telescopes that survive, never before allowed out of Italy. It will be on display at the Institute until September.

Galileo didn't invent the telescope, but the ones he started making in 1609 - as primitive as they were - literally changed the world.

"Doesn't look like much, does it?" said Derrick Pitts, chief astronomer at the Franklin.

"When he used this telescope to look at the night sky, to see Jupiter or Saturn or Venus, no one else in the history of people on this planet had ever looked at this stuff up close.

"It's what he saw that was so revolutionary, so contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church," Pitts said.

Galileo and his telescope proved that the Earth and the planets revolve around the Sun, not the other way around.

(Franklin Institute)
(Galileo's telescope, built in 1609, one of only two known to survive.)

His observations were heretical, said Neil Degrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist with the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. "In fact, you can consider the telescope to be the most heretical scientific instrument that ever was.

"Galileo got in big trouble, big trouble," said Tyson. In fact, he spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

But telescopes kept getting better, and bigger.

"The rise of telescopes is the rise of who had the biggest telescope of the day," said Tyson, "and so when I think of the next, sort of important telescope, I think of William Herschel and his telescopes."

Nearly two hundred years after Galileo, Herschel used a 48-inch mirror to collect light. The bigger the mirror, the more you can see. So in the telescope arms race, size matters.

In the U.S. in the 20th century, first came a telescope with a 60-inch mirror (Mt. Wilson, California, in 1908). Then, 100 inches (Mt. Wilson, 1917). Then 200 inches (Mt. Palomar, Calif., 1949). Then nearly 400 inches (Keck, Mauna Kea, Hawaii, 1993).

But they all have one big problem: The Earth's atmosphere. It reeks havoc on lightwaves.

Tyson said when a light beam traveling across the cosmos hits the atmosphere, "it gets bumped and jiggled and wiggled and smeared, and by the time it hits your detectors, it's this glowing smudge."

(AP Photo/NASA)
Enter the Hubble Space Telescope. Launched aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery on April 24, 1990, it went into orbit beyond the Earth's atmosphere.

The idea was to see into space without distortion. Trouble was, Hubble's mirror was made wrong.

In an amazing nail-biter of a mission, astronauts fixed the billion-and-a-half dollar telescope, and the world saw pictures Galileo couldn't even have imagined.

Four hundred years ago, before photography, he could only draw what he saw. Science and art have always intersected in the realm of telescopes.

In the 1920s, Russell Porter, considered the father of amateur astronomy in the U.S., created the Porter Garden Telescope. Less than twenty were made. One is in the Smithsonian.

Fred Schleipman wanted his own, passionately, and set out to copy an original.

"I was smitten by this marriage of art, beauty, to wonderful mechanical design," Schleipman said. "When you see the modern day telescopes, they do wonderful things, but they're not beautiful."

For Schleipman, who taught engineering at Dartmouth and designed instruments used in brain surgery, getting his hands on a Porter Garden Telescope was like pursuing the Holy Grail. It took him more than thirty years.

Duplicating it required redesigning every part. Each telescope is hand-made.

Schleipman described the completion of the first telescope as similar to having his first child.

To amortize the cost, Schleipman and his son, Russ, a photographer, decided to go into business.

At $37,000 apiece, they've sold twelve. Such is the zeal of the amateur astronomer.

Just based on data from Astronomy Club membership, there are at least half a million amateurs out there, worldwide, their telescopes exponentially more powerful than Galileo's - but nothing compared to the biggies.

Mario Livio, an astrophysicist with the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University, said Galileo's telescope helped him see things "maybe 50 times better than the human eye.

"But by the 1900s, maybe, telescopes on the ground could see maybe 100,000 times better than the human eye can see," Livio said. "Hubble sees, I would say, about, maybe, ten billion times better."

Which is how it's managed to revolutionize astronomy during its 19 years in space.

First, it told us the age of the universe: 13.7 billion years old. But that was just the beginning.

In the 1920s, astronomer Edwin Hubble discovered that our universe is expanding. It was thought the expansion was slowing down, until the Hubble Space Telescope (named for the astronomer) proved otherwise.

"Instead, we discovered that the expansion is speeding up," said Livio. "There is something that propels this to accelerate, and this something is the thing we call dark energy. And it is some 70 percent of the total energy of the universe.

"In terms of the achievements of Hubble, then I would say perhaps the number one achievement has to be [the discovery of] this dark energy."

The Hubble also revealed that there are massive black holes in the centers of galaxies.

But for armchair astronomers, perhaps the most astonishing thing Hubble has been able to show us on television, downloaded onto our computers, is the evolution of the universe.

"As you look out in space, you look back in time," Tyson said. "We see the universe not as it is, but as it once was.

"The universe is like this huge timeline, and the telescope is your time machine. From its orbit 340 miles above the Earth, the Hubble is seeing images of the universe hundreds of millions, even billions of years old, because it takes light from those images that long to travel through space.

"So the next step from the Hubble telescope is a telescope specifically tuned to observe galaxies being born in the earliest moments of the universe."

"The first galaxies appeared, you know, when the universe was only a couple of hundred million years old," said Livio. "We want to see those, and the James Webb will be able to see that."

The James Webb Space Telescope is due to be launched in 2014, around the time the Hubble is expected to go dark for good.

"This telescope is going to be very far away from Earth, about a million miles from Earth," said Livio. "It will be on the side of the Earth that is away from the sun."

That's right: A million miles away, peering at light invisible to the human eye. The size of a tennis court, it will be a hundred times more powerful even than the Hubble.

Four hundred years ago, Galileo, with a telescope that looks like a toy, revealed the truth about man's place in the universe - we were not the center of all things - and it was considered heresy.

Today's telescopes and tomorrow's tantalize us with the possibility of the most stunning revelation of all:

"It would certainly be great to discover intelligent life out there," said Livio, "and that will come eventually from telescopes, yes. I mean, this is going to be incredible, that we will find that we are not alone in this universe."

For more info:

  • CBS News space analyst Bill Harwood's "Space Place" updates on Shuttle Mission STS-125 to maintain the Hubble Space Telescope
  • Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C.; (202) 633-1000
  • Hayden Planetarium, New York City; (212) 769-5200
  • Porter Garden Telescopes
    Russ Schleipman
    66 Partridge Hill
    Norwich, VT 05055
    (617) 292-5155
  • Hubble Space Telescope