January 07, 2011

New Worlds for a New Year

For my inaugural museum excursion of 2011, I visited the American Museum of Natural History on Central Park West. It was the very first museum I visited when I moved to New York in the 1980's and though it has changed a lot over the years, I still have a soft spot for the Hall of Mammals, the Hall of Birds and my very favorite, the Hall of North West Coast Indians, the oldest hall in the museum. As I strolled past the old-fashioned dioramas and new-fashioned computer interactive touch screens, I was heartened to see that nature and science still fascinate and inspire and children are still impressed by the enormous suspended whale and towering skeletal dinosaurs.

But the highlight of this visit to the museum was the 45 minute long film presented in super-size IMAX in the LeFrak Theater. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, the IMAX Space Team put together an amazing movie tracking the building, launch and journey of this remarkable instrument.

The idea of a space-based telescope dates back to 1946 but actual design and construction did not begin until the late 1970s with the finished product ready to be launched in 1990. After a successful introduction into space via the Space Shuttle Discovery, it was soon realized that the primary mirror, the centerpiece of the optical system and critical to the quality of the images captured, was flawed, and so began a series of missions to repair and update equipment while orbiting in outer space.

The IMAX film, in a format as grand as the cosmos itself, follows the history of the Hubble Space Telescope from its initial blast off into the atmosphere through the recent awe-inspiring space walks to fix and improve the equipment. I literally was holding my breath as highly trained astronauts (who practised in an enormous swimming pool in Texas) captured, entered and refurbished the apparatus all while floating thousands of miles above the Earth in -200 degree temperatures with no gravity. Amazing.

Also amazing are the images that Hubble has given us. Formations of new stars, burning out of old stars, black holes, gamma ray bursts and the existence of other suns and galaxies can all be seen in the remarkable photographs and data transmitted back to scientists and astronomers at the Goddard Space Flight Center near Washington D.C.

Experts are unsure about the future of the Hubble Space Telescope. Despite the wear and tear of 20 years in outer space, and the obsolescence of its technology, the Telescope appears to be functioning well after its most recent refurbishment in 2009. Indeed the future of the entire American space program appears unsure as budgetary and other pressures squeeze NASA and its partners. It would be a pity to abandon the field now after so much innovation and progress and sheer national pride can be attributed to the agency and its operations.

I remember when Apollo 11 landed on the moon and astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin stepped onto its surface. It was an incredible moment and one that remains impressive even as space exploration becomes almost routine. Back out on the street, in the feeble light of a January afternoon, I looked up at the sky and mused what lies beyond our corner of the universe and what marvelous discoveries await. Happy New Year!

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