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The calendar says a quarter-century has passed since the space shuttle Discovery lifted its cargo of dreams into low Earth orbit. Elevated above the distorting effects of our planet’s turbulent atmosphere, the school-bus-sized Hubble Space Telescope promised clearer views of the night sky than humans had ever witnessed.
Sure there were glitches, most notably a primary mirror ground to the wrong shape and equipment that inevitably wore down under the harsh conditions of space, but NASA anticipated problems. A series of five servicing missions not only restored Hubble to its original specifications but also rebuilt the observatory into a 21st-century science machine. With new cameras and spectrographs operating nearly 24/7, much of what Hubble does today could hardly be dreamed of in 1990.
Just how much has Hubble accomplished during its 3-billion-mile (5 billion kilometers) journey around Earth? Scientists have published more than 12,000 papers in peer-reviewed journals using Hubble data. And not all of that science has come from new observations — researchers routinely plumb the Hubble archives, which currently hold more than 100 terabytes of data.
But to most of us, Hubble’s greatest contribution has been its images, which span the cosmos from next door (the Moon) to the universe’s earliest galaxies. In its 25 years, Hubble has snapped more than 1 million images of nearly 40,000 objects.