What Hubble’s launch meant to me, as an amateur astronomer

When Hubble launched, many amateur astronomers felt it might render our hobby redundant. How wrong we were.

Hubble's famous 1995 image the 'Pillars of Creation'. Credit: NASA, ESA, STScI, J. Hester and P. Scowen (Arizona State University)

Is it really 30 years ago that those of us in the astronomical community watched with eager anticipation the launch of a decades long project, to put the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit?

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There it would be above the turbulence and vagaries of our atmosphere and give us unprecedented views of the cosmos.

Read more about Hubble’s history:

In the May issue of BBC Sky at Night Magazine – out now if you can get to a newsagent or better still have a subscription (a good time now, don’t you think, to do just that?) – space writer Jenny Winder looks back on that launch, the mission, its initial problem then outstanding repair missions and tremendous success ever since.

It got myself and the mag’s Staff Writer Iain Todd thinking about the effect of the Hubble Space Telescope on amateur astronomers.

I do remember wondering at the time of launch whether it would mean the end of amateur enthusiasm for the night sky.

I felt a connection with HST, and am still amazed it is still operational after all this time. I hope that connection will continue for a little while yet.

Look at it from this perspective: the HST would be above the atmosphere and produce images that would surpass anything we could ever hope to achieve, so what would be the point of continuing?

Yet it did the exact opposite, I’m pleased to say. Once the audacious repair mission gave Hubble its new sight the images were awesome, inspiring and, actually, unusual at the time.

Hubble’s image of the ‘Pillars of Creation’ in M16 (pictured above) appeared on many newspapers’ front pages – unprecedented when normally it’s a space disaster that gets front page coverage.

My image of NGC 1999 (left), which I resolved to capture after seeing Hubble's own incredible image of the target (right). Credit: Paul Money; Space Telescope Science Institute / NASA and the Hubble Heritage Team
My image of NGC 1999 (left), which I resolved to capture after seeing Hubble’s own incredible image of the target (right). Credit: Paul Money; Space Telescope Science Institute / NASA and the Hubble Heritage Team

It brought the wonders of the cosmos to the masses, just at the time that something called the ‘World Wide Web’ was connecting not just professionals but amateurs too via bulletin boards such as StarBase One and Starbase Four.

There I remember first being able to download NASA images and stare at them on my computer screen, gobsmacked at the views.

For me it did something else. I noticed a number of images that bore familiar ‘names’ such as Messier and NGC and so on occasions I tracked down with my own telescopes a few of the NGC objects that Hubble had imaged.

I was amazed that I could find many of them, even though I didn’t see the detail that Hubble could.

I felt an incredible connection with HST, and am still amazed it is still operational after all this time. I hope that connection will continue for a little while yet.

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Paul Money is BBC Sky at Night Magazine’s Reviews Editor. Read more about the Hubble Space Telescope in the May issue of BBC Sky at Night Magazine, out now. Click here for info on getting your copy online.