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Before it showed us distant reaches of the universe, the Hubble telescope ‘needed glasses’

Since its launch in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has sent back more than a million observations and amazing images, offering scientists and stargazers an unmatched window to the universe. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien joins Judy Woodruff to celebrate Hubble’s 25th anniversary and why it started off with fuzzy vision.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    It's a 25-year-old space telescope that's provided an unmatched window to the universe, one that's helped us understand origins of stars, nebulas and distant baby galaxies.

    The Hubble was launched on the space shuttle on April 25, 1990. It's sent back more than a million observations and amazing images, what have been called cosmic postcards. The latest was released by NASA yesterday: a cluster of 3,000 stars known as Westerlund 2.

    Science correspondent Miles O'Brien is here with a birthday appreciation.

    And, Miles, it is the birthday, and we're celebrating. And yet it wasn't so smooth at the beginning.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Yes, 25 years, we're celebrating, and, when it began, 25 years, one month from now, in May, it was a disaster.

    How quickly we forget what they called spherical aberration. Essentially, Hubble was Mr. Magoo. It couldn't see well and it needed some glasses. And so NASA was, of course, tremendously embarrassed by a mirror that wasn't shaped entirely properly and it had fuzzy vision.

    The 1993 Hubble repair mission, the first of five mission to upgrade and improve the Hubble, was such a critical mission. And when they were able to put what amounts to eyeglasses on Hubble, suddenly, it could see like we have never seen before into the distant reaches of the universe. But it started out a laughing stock.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Yes, we — we forget that that happened.

    So, over the years, it sent back, as we said, so many images. What are some that stand out to you as the most significant?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Well, time is short. I will give you my top three.

    Pillars of Creation, now, this is iconic in every way. It's made the cover of textbooks and magazines, and it's something that on the one hand has great scientific significance, because it takes you to basically the nursery for stars. This is how stars are formed. And what Hubble is doing is, in a time machine kind of way, taking us back to the very origins of our universe and showing how it grew up.

    And this is taking us back to the baby pictures. But what — the other reason I like it is that it was a tremendous way of engaging the general public. People look at this. You don't have to be a scientist to look at this thing and be struck by its beauty and struck by the connection we all have to the universe.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And that's not the only one.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    No.

    Number two on my list would 1994. And that is the newly sharpened vision of Hubble trained on Jupiter for the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet. It was a comet that broke apart, and we watched as impacted into Jupiter 21 times. This one particular is of the g impact, which was larger than 600 times the nuclear arsenal of our planet, huge, huge explosions, which we witnessed in real time, extraordinarily good luck for scientists, an amazing feat.

    And, finally — and my are all kind of vintage Hubble images, but the Deep Field image back in 1995 — they took a little tiny piece of the sky, seemingly dark, 1/24-millionth of the sky, and did a longtime exposure on that with Hubble. And they came up with 3,000 objects that we'd never seen before, most of them that were galaxies.

    So, you have to ask yourself, if that little darkened piece of the sky, 1/24-millionth, gave us 3,000 objects we'd never seen before, what does that tell you about how large and populated our universe, and, ultimately, could we really be alone?

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Miles O'Brien, thank you.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    You're welcome.

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