Thirty years ago Friday, the Hubble Space Telescope was launched aboard the shuttle Discovery with a famously flawed mirror, the opening chapter in an improbable saga of redemption and scientific discovery that revolutionized humanity's view of the cosmos with jaw-dropping images now familiar to millions.
The list of Hubble's achievements is both long and stunning, everything from proving the existence of supermassive black holes to pinning down the age of the universe to within a few percent.
Hubble's exquisite vision has allowed astronomers to study the chemical make up of exoplanet atmospheres, to capture flyby-class views of planets in Earth's solar system and to collect mind-bending "deep field" images showing the first galaxies coalescing in the wake of the big bang.
Adam Riess shared a Nobel Prize for Hubble research that helped confirm the expansion of the universe is accelerating, not slowing down or flattening out as expected, one of Hubble's most profound results. He's using the telescope now to help resolve discrepancies in that expansion rate, high-stakes research that could reshape the theoretical underpinnings of cosmology.
"Obviously there will be other telescopes, but I don't know if there's going to be a telescope that takes us as far from sort of where we were to where we end up," Riess said in an interview.
"It's almost like when (sailors first) circumnavigated the globe, there's only sort of one time that you get to open up that much unexplored territory. Hubble arrived at a time when we had never seen the universe with that kind of crisp resolution and able to see so far out. The new telescopes will really help follow up on so much of what we learned from Hubble. It's just that Hubble was such a game changer."
James Fanson, project manager of the Giant Magellan Telescope, one of the huge new ground-based observatories now under development, said in a statement that Hubble had revolutionized astronomy "in the same way Galileo's telescope did 400 years ago when first turned to the heavens."
"Hubble's images reached the level of art, and its discoveries touched the imagination of ordinary people around the world. Hubble became the 'people's telescope,' and it will always have a cherished place in our history and culture."