Mr. Hubble goes to Washington

By Phil Plait | November 25, 2009 7:34 am

Hey, if you’re in the Washington DC area until mid-December, make a special effort to go to the National Air and Space Museum. It’s a rockin’ cool place in its own right, but for the next couple of weeks it’ll be extra-special: WFPC2 and COSTAR — two of the instruments from the Hubble Space Telescope that were removed in the last servicing mission — will be on display there!

pillars_creation_300An older camera, the Faint Object Spectrograph, has been at the NASM for a few years now, and now these two will join it. The Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 was put on board in 1994, and was the first camera to internally correct for Hubble’s out-of-focus mirror. It revolutionized the way the public sees astronomy, having been used to create such iconic images as The Pillars of Creation, seen here.

The Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement was a gizmo that had a bunch of mirrors on it that sent refocused light to the other cameras onboard. Ever since, all cameras placed on Hubble have corrected the focus internally, so COSTAR is no longer needed. That’s why it was removed, to make room for the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph.

WFPC2 and COSTAR will be at the museum until mid-December, than shipped to California to be displayed there. It’s expected they’ll come back to NASM in March 2010.

I never used WFPC2 for any published work, but right after launch it was used to look at Supernova 1987A, an object I studied for my PhD. I had made some predictions based on our earlier, fuzzier images, and WFPC2 confirmed several of them. I fiddled with some of the data from it after that as well, too, so I do feel some connection to the camera.

I don’t know if I’ll get to DC before it moves out, but I may get to SoCal. I’d love a chance to see in person the camera that changed so much about astronomy, and made it something everyone could share.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Geekery, Space

Comments (16)


    Phil, at the fourth paragraph, in the first line, the term should be then, not “than”.

  2. Abbey

    I have always loved the Air & Space Museum and now have a new reason to go back and take the girls for a little bit o’ learnin. That and to restock on my dads supply of astronaut ice cream. How he can eat that stuff I’ll never know. Thanks for the heads up, Dr. P!

  3. Cindy

    Aggh! While I’ll be down in the DC area this weekend, it’s just to my MIL’s place for the day (drive 3 hours, stay 3 hours, drive 3 hours back). I remember the servicing mission when WFPC2 and COSTAR were installed. My officemate was the technical assistant on WFPC2 (and I worked on FOS).

    I do hope they come back in March 2010 as I have spring break in mid-March and could probably get down there to see them.

  4. Darn. We drive by DC on the way to my mother’s house, but that won’t be until the end of December, so that’s too late. :-(

    The last time we planned on actually stopping in DC (instead of our usual route of taking 495 around it) was the same day as President Ford’s funeral. Timing’s everything.

  5. Mike

    WFPC2 and COSTAR are going to California? Where? I sure hope it isn’t that POS “Science Center” in Los Angeles.

  6. Chris A.

    @Mike (5):
    So let me understand this. The science center you refer to is a “POS,” so if they bring something in that you’d be interested in that’s bad? Why not look at it as an effort they’re making to improve by bringing in an exhibit that you WOULD like?

    That being said, I have never visited any science centers in L.A. But working in the field, I get a little touchy when people make remarks like this.

  7. Bill

    Don’t know how close you can get, but if you look at the radiator, you can see a bunch of imbedded micro-meteorites.

  8. Mike

    Chris, you should visit the California Science Center before you respond. It has a bunch of very spotty and excessively complex exhibits, intermixed with a few — too few IMO — good ideas. And it’s faulty reasoning to assume that being “bad” means everything in it is bad. Of course that’s not the case. And yes, I’d take the 7 hour drive down there to show my son HST artifacts if they ended up there. No, that doesn’t make it a better museum. It’s essential problem is one of focus and cohesion (it’s rather difficult in several areas to figure out what the gist of an exhibit is), and bringing more unrelated artifacts down would make that worse.

    There are many, many better science museums around. In LA, for example, the recently renovated Griffith Park Observatory (even if it has wildly insufficient parking and a narrower focus).

    But if you do check that one out, the one to compare it to is the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, which caters to a similar niche in a far better manner.

  9. AliCali

    I live in LA, and I’ve visited the California Museum of Science & Industry (next to the Coliseum). This was scattered and uninspiring. There were airplane exhibits, but nothing that engaged my curiosity. That is the most important part of a science exhibit: to engage one’s curiosity and wonder.

    Every city I visit, I do my best to visit the local science center. The first one I visited outside of LA was in St. Louis, near the zoo. It was free when I went, was extremely well-organized, and has been the best of the few I’ve visited. The exhibits were grouped by category with hands-on and relevant demonstrations. For instance, the science center straddled a freeway and had a glass bridge going across. When going across the freeway, there were exhibits about how a road is constructed and also how a radar gun works. There was a radar gun you could use to check the speed of the cars below; very fun! The science center also had live demonstrations that were clear and fun to watch. I learned how water boils at different temperatures depending on pressure, and I also learned about color receptors in the eye using a half-black half-white wheel. The latter was relevant to stargazing, as I learned about how my eye picks up color.

    Of other cities, I remember visiting a science center in Vancouver (in the old Olympic dome, very poorly done), Ottawa (average quality), and Munich (the Deutsches, very well done, but St. Louis was better).

    Either way, I’m very interested to know where and when this piece of Hubble will be in LA.

  10. @Phil
    I fiddled with some of the data from it

    That is so going to be taken out of context by the Hubble deniers at some point.

  11. Nigel Depledge

    The BA said:

    I fiddled with some of the data from it


    So THAT’S why they call you the Bad Astronomer! Because you fiddle your data. Why that’s just like making stuff up because you don’t understand!

    Bad Astronomer! Bad, bad astronomer! Go stand in the corner.[/parody]

    Or maybe you meant playing around with the data?

  12. When I worked at Space Telescope Science Institute, I was one of the Program Coordinators responsible for preparing observations aboard HST. We were each assigned a specific instrument and WFPC2 was “mine.” I felt a great connection with the camera and I am proud that I was able to help, even in a relatively small way, to “take” some of the amazing images with that camera. I can’t wait to get down to NASM to see it!

  13. Brian Too

    Well, you saw it with your own eyes here folks. Hubblegate!!

    Phil admitted in writing that he “fiddled with some of the data from it “. And he writes under the pseudonym “Bad Astronomer”. What else is he hiding?!

    That does it. Every word Phil has ever said is a lie. Astronomy is a hoax perpetrated by liberals/communists/The Man and the sole purpose is to raise our taxes. My default position now is that the Web is full of misinformation and my starry-eyed idealism is shattered!

    If you’ll excuse me I now have to seek comfort in a glass of whiskey and weep quietly in a darkened room. When, oh when, will the Good Old Days (G.O.D.) return?

  14. Messier TidyUpper

    I never used WFPC2 for any published work, but right after launch it was used to look at Supernova 1987A, an object I studied for my PhD. I had made some predictions based on our earlier, fuzzier images, and WFPC2 confirmed several of them.


    Could you please elaborate if you can. Ideally summarised & without too much maths?

    Good to see the instruments kept for future generations – wish the same was true of the whole Hubble Space Telescope or rather space observatory.

  15. Petrolonfire

    @ 13 Brian Too:

    If you’ll excuse me I now have to seek comfort in a glass of whiskey

    Only one glass? I’d try the whole bottle or make that crate of whisky if I was you! ūüėČ

  16. Adrian

    Just bought a certain book from the Aerospace Museum.


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