The Hubble Space Telescope is named after the astronomer Edwin Hubble

Click to follow
The Hubble Space Telescope is named after the astronomer Edwin Hubble (left), who made the first major study of far-off galaxies. The telescope is the largest and heaviest payload ever launched by the space shuttles: of all the shuttles, only Discovery was powerful enough to launch it. At more than 43 feet long and 14 feet in diameter, its size is comparable with that of a double-decker bus; the structure weighs almost 11 tons.

Hubble - powered by solar panels built by British Aerospace - comprises the optical telescope proper, the control system and five scientific instruments: light enters the top of the telescope, is reflected by an 84-inch diameter mirror on to a smaller, secondary mirror, and is then directed towards the instruments located behind the main mirror. The design of Hubble's instruments means that objects that are outside the visible light spectrum are made visible; astronomers are able to look more deeply and more clearly into the universe than ever before.

It's a project that requires not only gargantuan amounts of cash - the cost of merely constructing it is thought to have been around $1.4bn - but also a substantial human input. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, USA, which controls Hubble and presides over the observation programmes, employs 300 people in all, 15 of whom are scientists with the European Space Agency. A Space Telescope European Co-ordinating Facility has been set up near Munich, employing 14 staff to help European astronomers to get the most out of their observing time; in addition, eight ESA scientists are working permanently on the space telescope programme at ESTEC, the agency's scientific establishment at Noordwjik, near Amsterdam.

Before Hubble's launch, scientists were given the opportunity to bid for observing time, and those who were successful were designated "guaranteed time observers" (GTOs). Teams of GTOs throughout the world have prepared intensive observation programmes and seek to analyse the data gathered and understand its implications as quickly as possible.