By Lee Billings
Thirty years ago a team of NASA astronauts tipped the Hubble Space Telescope out of a space shuttle’s cargo bay and into low-Earth orbit. High above our planet’s starlight-smearing atmosphere, Hubble could study phenomena across the cosmos that ground-based observatories could never hope to see. It was not the first space telescope, but it is by far the longest-lived and most productive—thanks in large part to an innovative design that allowed Hubble to be visited, repaired and upgraded. Today it has irreversibly transformed astronomy, leading not only to profound new discoveries about the universe but also to plans for even more ambitious space telescopes.
Although Hubble’s eyes are more than 500 kilometers above Earth, its heart is arguably in Baltimore: in the halls, offices and conference rooms of the Space Telescope Science Institute, where the observatory’s science operations take place. To help commemorate Hubble’s three decades of discovery, Scientific American spoke with the institute’s director Ken Sembach about the telescope’s most revolutionary discoveries, its operations during the coronavirus pandemic and how much longer it might last.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
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