Yesterday, NASA announced a milestone in the almost 22-year history of its Hubble Space Telescope: The 10,000th refereed scientific paper based on Hubble data has now been published, reinforcing that Hubble is one of the most successful astronomical experiments in human history.
Many people will see this as an incredible achievement — a testament to humanity's indomitable spirit of inquiry. But make no mistake that others will hear this news and ask "why?"
They'll ask why we continue to strive to see further and deeper into space than ever before, without knowing what we'll find. They'll ask why we insist upon exploring a solar system that, by their account, has no immediate bearing on our lives. And they'll ask why, in light of recent budgetary crises, space agencies the world over deserve funding to seek out answers to the mysteries of a Universe that we will never fully understand.
And the simplest answer I can come up with is this: because when it comes to exploring the cosmic neighborhood we call our Universe, humanity has yet to even set foot outside the house. We have only just begun to look upon our solar system, galaxy and universe, and there is so much more to explore that we cannot even begin to speculate on what lies before us, waiting to be discovered. To not venture outside and take a look around would be not only boring, but irresponsible.
Last month, I had the chance to speak with astrophysicist Michael Shara — curator of the American Museum of Natural History's department of astrophysics — about the future of human space exploration. Shara uses data generated from Hubble for his own research, and, as an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, was responsible for the telescope's peer review committees in the 80's and 90's — so it was really only a matter of time before the topic of our discussion turned to Hubble.
And while Shara was quick to acknowledge the telescope's impressive scientific value, it was what he had to say about its so-called successor — the James Webb Space Telescope — that has really stuck with me; and it's something that I think captures the significance of space exploration particularly well.
Shara told me that the James Webb Space Telescope has, in many ways, 100 times the capabilities of Hubble. "There isn't a field in all of astrophysics that it will not benefit tremendously," he said. "Just as Hubble was an enormous leap forward for all of astrophysics…I find it almost impossible to believe that we won't make the same kinds of discoveries with the James Webb Telescope."
Shara then directed my attention to a book that he keeps in his office, titled Science with the Hubble Space Telescope.
He explained that if you had asked astronomers back in the 1980's what Hubble would discover, they would have offered up a whole list of ideas, based on what Hubble had been designed to explore and make sense of. That list, explains Shara, is the contents of Science with the Hubble Space Telescope. It was, in Shara's words, a list of "excellent ideas," a "blueprint for the first five years of operation of the Hubble Space Telescope."
"But interestingly enough, the great findings of Hubble are not in here," he said with a smile;
They're not here. Because once you started seeing things with Hubble that you'd never seen before, you pushed it harder and harder to do new things, and the kinds of things that are being done with Hubble today are very different from [the things in this book].
The same will happen with the James Webb Space Telescope. We will discover new things that we have no way of knowing about today, no way of guessing; our intuition isn't able to take us there. And those will be the great discoveries that will actually show up in the coming 20 years, in the coming 30 years.
Top image of NGC2818 by Hubble Space Telescope via NASA