University of Colorado Boulder astronomers, who helped design and build instruments for and have made hundreds of observations using the Hubble Space Telescope since its launch, will be among those celebrating the observatory’s 25th anniversary. 

Former CU-Boulder Senior Research Associate Jack Brandt, now retired, led the science team for the Goddard High Resolution Spectrograph, one of eight instruments aboard Hubble when it launched April 24, 1990. In 2009, during the final Hubble servicing mission, astronauts installed the $70 million Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS), designed by a team led by Professor James Green of CU-Boulder’s Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy (CASA, and which included 14 CU-Boulder astronomers. 

COS was built primarily by Ball Aerospace Systems Group of Boulder. The powerful spectrograph gathers information from ultraviolet light emanating from distant objects like galaxies and quasars to allow scientists to look out into deep space and back in time to reconstruct the physical condition and evolution of the early universe, said Green. The telephone-booth-sized COS is helping scientists better understand the “cosmic web” of material believed to permeate the universe. 

“It’s hard to believe it’s been 25 years,” said CU-Boulder Professor Michael Shull, a co-investigator on COS and faculty member at CASA. “CU-Boulder not only had a huge role in building Hubble, but also in using it.” The COS science team received 552 orbits of observing time with the observatory, which included use by both graduate and undergraduate students.  Both Shull and Green also are faculty members in CU-Boulder’s Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences.

COS astronomers use distant quasars as “flashlights” to track light as it passes through the cosmic web of long, narrow filaments of galaxies and intergalactic gas separated by enormous voids, said Green. Astrophysicists have theorized that a single cosmic web filament may stretch for hundreds of millions of light-years, an astonishing length considering a single light-year is about 5.9 trillion miles.

Light absorbed by material in the cosmic web is revealing “fingerprints” of matter like hydrogen, helium and heavier elements, allowing scientists to build up a picture of how the gases are distributed and how matter has changed over time as the universe has aged, Green said.

The spectrograph breaks light into its individual components much like a prism, revealing the temperature, density, velocity, distance and chemical composition of galaxies, stars and gas clouds, said Shull. The team has chosen hundreds of astronomical targets in all directions of space, which will allow them to build a picture of the way matter is organized in the universe on a grand scale, Shull said.

In 2012, a CASA-led team used Hubble to uncover a cluster of galaxies in the initial stages of construction — the most distant such grouping ever observed in the early universe. In a random sky survey made in near-infrared light, Hubble spied five small galaxies clustered together 13.1 billion light-years away. They are among the brightest galaxies at that epoch and very young, living just 600 million years after the universe’s birth in the Big Bang.

In the last several years, the same CU-Boulder team used Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 to discover and catalog nearly 100 distant galaxies that formed in the first 500 million years after the Big Bang, said Shull.

“We are hoping for five more good years with Hubble,” said Shull, who noted that in addition to two new instruments, the orbiting observatory had new batteries and gyroscopes installed during the 2009 servicing mission. The hope by astronomers is that Hubble will continue to operate at least until the scheduled 2018 launch of NASA’s James Webb Telescope, which will be the most powerful orbiting observatory ever. 

PIO Contact:
Jim Scott
+1 303-492-3114

Science Contact: 
Jim Green
+1 303-492-7645

Michael Shull
+1 303-492-7827

Images of the Hubble Space Telescope and its astronomical targets: 

The Hubble Space Telescope is a joint project between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute conducts Hubble science operations.