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The new telescope’s imaging prowess clearly exceeded that of the best ground-based telescopes, as shown in the image above of stars in the Carina cluster. But after a few weeks, scientists began to realize something was amiss. Hubble’s images weren’t as sharp as they should be. A NASA investigation discovered that the telescope’s 8-foot primary mirror had been ground just a little bit too flat around the edges due to a miscalibrated measuring instrument.
Though the slightly blurry images were still good enough for scientists to see space as never before and do ground-breaking research, the mirror’s aberration meant Hubble would not be able to complete some of its mission, and its images wouldn’t be as spectacular as they could be. This would have been hugely disappointing for the many scientists and engineers who had been dreaming of — and working toward — launching a telescope into space since the National Academy of Science formed a committee to study the possibility in 1966.
A heroic effort to devise a fix for the problem before the space shuttle was due to visit Hubble in 1993 was able to correct the flaw and rescue the mission. Astronauts replaced the telescope’s Wide Field/Planetary Camera with the Wide Field/Planetary Camera 2, which compensated for the mirror aberration.
If the repair had not succeeded, the Hubble Space Telescope almost certainly would not have come to occupy its current place in the hearts of people across the world. It’s the astonishing detail of Hubble’s images that has turned people on to space for the last 17 years, as one of the telescope’s most recent shots of the Carina Nebula demonstrates.
The mirror issue was not the only setback the Hubble mission has faced over the years. The telescope was originally scheduled to launch in 1983, but though the mirror was finished in time, the entire optical apparatus didn’t come together until 1984. The entire spacecraft was ready to go by 1985, and slotted for launch in October 1986, but the Challenger disaster in January of that year halted shuttle flights for two years. Hubble finally made its way into space aboard Discovery on April 24, 1990.