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History with Hubble brings heavens closer to ASU

May 13, 2009

For nearly twenty years the Hubble Space Telescope has brought the beauty and brilliance of the heavens to us on Earth along with unprecedented discoveries. After Hubble receives its final instrument upgrade that will keep it operating until 2013 and the Servicing Mission 4 crew on Atlantis installs a new camera, Hubble will be an even more powerful facility for astronomical research while simultaneously bringing the heavens closer to Arizona State University.

The launch of the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990 initiated an era of unprecedented discoveries. Rogier Windhorst, a regents' and foundation professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, contributed significantly to our understanding of the universe, specifically the structure of the universe and the evolution of distant galaxies. He has had his hands on Hubble since its inception and over the past two decades he has been involved with more than 45 HST projects.

On account of his expertise and Hubble history, Windhorst was selected as a member of the WFC3 Science Oversight Committee to help define the science goals of the new camera and ensure that Goddard Space Flight Center built the camera to specification. The high-resolution, wide-field camera will become Hubble's workhorse and will have a broad range of inquiry beyond Hubble's current reach.

The instrument's key feature is its ability to span the electromagnetic spectrum from the near ultraviolet through the optical, and into the near infrared. WFC3 is the only Hubble instrument with this "panchromatic" capability. The near infrared detector will improve the discovery efficiency of the current instrument 30 times.

Those awe-inspiring Hubble images such as that of the Eagle Nebula or the Omega Nebula were generated by the Wide Field Planetary Cameras (1 and 2), cameras that are now more than fifteen years old. Fifteen years ago digital cameras were unheard of and now nearly all cell phones have one. Imagine how impressive the next Hubble images will be when the new WFC3 replaces the dated WFPC2.

"The images we have to look forward to will be even more spectacular," said Windhorst. "Imagine taking a beautiful Ultra-Deep Field Hubble image and pouring a bucket of 10,000 small diamonds over the top of it. With the ultra-violet capabilities, now you will see all these young sparkling star clusters shining through like diamonds where we couldn't see them before."

Windhorst continually seeks ways to involve his students, colleagues and the community in his HST research.

"Professor Windhorst has actively sought advice from our group over the years, specifically in terms of filter selection, and more recently last minute technical issues with the camera itself," said Seth Cohen, a postdoctoral research associate in the School of Earth and Space Exploration in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. "And the future holds even more opportunities for students here."

The Science Oversight Committee designed a science program to test and demonstrate the science capabilities of the WFC3, referred to as Early Release Science (ERS) data. Students in the School of Earth and Space Exploration will be involved in the processing and analyzing the ERS data.

It will be at least two months after launch before the first science observations begin and the ERS project can start. First several old instruments on HST must be repaired and then WFC3 needs to be installed. The telescope will sit idle until all of the harmful vapors associated with the shuttle orbiter have dissipated. Then it will start an exhaustive set of tests, verifications and calibrations.

"The first scientific data are expected to be taken sometime in August, after which they need to be processed before any pictures can be made public," said Rolf Jansen, associate research professional in the School of Earth and Space Exploration who focuses on "near-field cosmology" and galaxy assembly over cosmic time. "Don't expect pictures until early fall."

Windhorst already has a strong team of current and former graduate students lined up to help with the ERS, including Teresa Ashcroft, Brian Gleim, Hwihyun Kim, Katie Kaleida and Michael Rutkowski. Kaleida focuses on stellar populations and star clusters within nearby spiral galaxies, while Rutkowski's specialty is ultraviolet emission from stellar populations in early-type galaxies. Both have been actively involved in engaging local K-12 students in HST-related projects as part of their involvement with the NASA Space Grant program at ASU. Rutkowski has been at St. Mary's Catholic school and Kaleida has been working with the Tempe Ladmo branch of the Boys & Girls Club. 

"Only one undergraduate student has been involved - Matt Mechtley, who worked on the visualization of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field data and developed the "AHaH" web-tool," said Jansen. "But we anticipate attracting additional undergraduates this summer and fall to help with the processing and analysis of the WFC3 ERS data, gain hands-on experience in research, and to help with public outreach."

Many of Windhorst's students and researchers will be traveling to Kennedy Space Center to attend the launch, a special part of the School of Earth and Space Exploration will actually be flying on board the shuttle to Hubble. Packed in Astronaut John Grunsfeld's space kit is the school's flag.

"The school flag gets to travel to all the places that our professors conduct research, which is every continent on Earth as well as the planets and galaxies beyond," said Windhorst. "It's fitting that the flag flies in the shuttle to Hubble."

For those unable to attend the launch, NASA Television will provide live high definition coverage of Monday's scheduled launch of space shuttle Atlantis on its STS-125 mission to upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope. For NASA TV streaming video, downlink and scheduling information, visit: