I Can See Clearly Now...

FORGIVE NASA. IF THE SPACE AGENCY IS acting like a kid who just received his first point-and-shoot camera and is clicking away at everything in sight, not to mention trotting out proud relatives to pronounce him the next Alfred Stieghtz, it's understandable. Having built a myopic Hubble Space telescope and lost the Mars Observer recently, NASA had begun to look like the agency that couldn't launch straight. But in December, four spacewalking astronauts replaced half a dozen of Hubble's defective and obsolete parts, and last week NASA released the first photographs from the refurbished scope. Compared with the fuzzballs that Hubble used to transmit, these were razor sharp and left no doubt that the repairs have made Hubble the best telescope going. A beaming Daniel Goldin, NASA administrator, said the repair had exceeded NASNs "wildest dreams" and "achieved something wonderful for the people of planet Earth." Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who heads the committee that controls NASA's purse strings, pronounced "the trouble with Hubble over."

Just imagine the gushing when Hubble takes a shot of something that's actually important. To be fair, the photos of spiral galaxies, gas clouds, galactic cores and exploding stars were never intended to reveal anything important about the universe. All they did--particularly when juxtaposed with shots of the object taken before the repairs--was to prove conclusively that Hubble could see clearly now. The sharper focus was provided by a new Wide Field/Planetary Camera (a replacement that had been planned even before the telescope was launched in 1990) and a giant contact lens called COSTAR that corrected for the defective telescope mirror. Both worked better than expected. COSTAR was programmed to receive up to 2,000 remote-controlled tweaks from astronomers at the Space Telescope Science Institute, for instance, but it needed fewer than a dozen.

Now Hubble is packed with 1990s technology rather than gizmos engineered when HST was on the drawing board 20 years ago. The new wide-field camera, for instance, can see 12 billion light-years away, three times as far as the original. Radiation from so far away, and hence so long ago, should carry messages about the universe's childhood and shed light on how the cosmos began and grew. Along the way, Hubble should now get a clear view of black holes, which remain mysterious, and quasars, objects packed with more energy than astrophysics can explain. The cameras might even distinguish planets around other stars (though not any little green men waving back across the galaxy): Hubble's resolution is now so fine it could spy a firefly 8,500 miles away. It's going to be some photo album.