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Hubble hits new heights

Imax / NASA
Click for Imax interactive: The movie "Hubble 3D" and similar efforts bridge
the gap between cosmic sights and earthly audiences. Click on the image to see
a Flash interactive model of the Hubble Space Telescope on the Imax Web site.

As the Hubble Space Telescope nears its 20th birthday, its value for research and the public understanding of science is reaching an unprecedented peak. Few celebrities have been the subject of so many biographies and movies by the time they turn 20.

The best of the bunch, in print and on the big screen, is arguably hitting the market right now, less than a year after a major upgrade left Hubble in the best shape it's ever been.

Hubble at the movies
"Hubble 3D," a monster-screen movie now playing at Imax theaters, combines amazing 3-D live footage of last May's final servicing mission with computer-generated zoom-through views of cosmic scenes.

The movie ranked No. 20 on the box-office list last weekend, grossing about $411,000 in just 39 theaters. We're not just talking here about No. 20 for movies that usually play at science centers and museums. We're talking about the big-time list: "Hubble 3D" nearly beat out "The Hurt Locker," which won the best-picture Oscar earlier this month. It made more money per screen than that other 3-D movie, the top-grossing "Alice in Wonderland."

It's not difficult to see why "Hubble 3D" is such a crowd-pleaser: The hardest-to-get shots were the 3-D panoramas showing the four-story-high telescope towering up from the shuttle Discovery's payload bay, with a fish-eye view of Earth's disk looming behind it. Last year, producer Toni Myers told me she could get only eight minutes' worth of film from that vantage point during each of the mission's five marathon spacewalks.

Astronaut Drew Feustel looms large as he moves a corrective-optics package from
the Hubble Space Telescope to a stowage position during May's final servicing
mission. This view was captured by the Imax 3-D camera in Atlantis' cargo bay.

During one of the panoramic scenes, astronaut Drew Feustel floats right across the screen, guiding a corrective-optics package to its storage slot. "You can see every stitch in his suit," Myers said. But I was too busy marveling over the zero-G, 3-D effect to count the stitches.

Some of the shots (including helmet-cam video views as well as archival film footage) were originally captured in 2-D and reprocessed to add 3-D perspective. The prime example of that is a scene documenting one of the mission's climactic moments, when spacewalker Mike Massimino pulls off a stuck handrail with his gloved hand.

You have to expect an ear-rattling shuttle launch when you go to an Imax movie with a space theme. "Hubble 3D" doubles your expectations by providing two: file footage of the liftoff on April 24, 1990, when Hubble was sent off into space; and a true 3-D view of last year's launch for the servicing mission.

It was an unexpected pleasure to see the astronauts at work and at leisure in 3-D, on Earth as well as in space. When "Hubble 3D" shows spacewalkers training in Johnson Space Center's practice pool, you feel as if you're right in the water with them. The funniest scene, at least during the showing I attended, came when Feustel fumbled with a tortilla spinning in zero-gravity and virtually dripping with what looked like chicken or tuna spread.

Hubble on the Web
If you liked the movie, you'll love the Web site: The "Hubble 3D" site offers video Webisodes, screensaver downloads, a picture-puzzle game and a virtual Hubble model that you can spin and click on for detailed information about the telescope. (We have our own virtual model that's not too shabby.)

Of course you'll want to check out the Hubble sites maintained by the Space Telescope Science Institute and the European Space Agency as well. And don't forget our own roundup of "Hubble's Latest, Greatest Hits," plus our audio slideshow featuring Hubble repairman Story Musgrave.

Hubble in print
If you love the Web sites but want to hold Hubble's wonders in your hands, there are plenty of books out there that chronicle Hubble's history and imagery. But the most up-to-date publication is "Hubble: A Journey Through Space and Time," a coffee-table book that recaps the final servicing mission and celebrates the telescope's 20th anniversary.

The 144-page volume is touted as "NASA's first book on the Hubble Space Telescope." The main text is written by Ed Weiler, who served as Hubble's chief scientist for almost 20 years (yes, since long before it was launched) and is now associate administrator for NASA's science mission directorate. Space agency chief Charles Bolden, who commanded the space shuttle mission for Hubble's deployment in 1990, contributes a foreword. (He also plays a cameo role in "Hubble 3-D.") Astronauts from each of the Hubble missions recap their contributions.


  "Hubble: A Journey Through Space and Time" tells the story of the space telescope and the people behind it.

Weiler succinctly retraces the story of Hubble's ups and downs - including the mirror flaw that turned Weiler's dream into a nightmare 20 years ago. "To me this compared to being on top of Mount Everest then tumbling down to Death Valley," he writes. Clever engineering compensated for the imperfection, however, and Hubble's triumph over adversity became a hallmark of the telescope's history.

Last year's servicing mission - which almost didn't happen, by the way - serves as the final chapter of the book. But the final chapter of Hubble's story is still far from being written. Thanks to the upgrades in its instruments, batteries and gyroscopes, the telescope is in peak condition and could keep working well into the decade ahead.

The James Webb Space Telescope, due for launch in 2014, may be portrayed as "Hubble's successor" - but it's hard to imagine anything taking Hubble's place in the hearts of its fans. Then again, who knows what the next generation of great observatories will find?

"After 20 years of phenomenal discoveries from Hubble and other space observatories, or view of the universe and our place within it has changed forever," Weiler writes. "These observations have taught us that there is still much to discover. I predict that we could very well, before the end of this century, prove definitively that there is life elsewhere."

Hubble and much, much more
While you're waiting for those answers to life's deepest questions, check out the views from Hubble and other probes in our Space Gallery. And in case you're looking for more information or downloadable images relating to our latest "Month in Space" slideshow, here are the Web links:

Join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter. And if you really want to be friendly, ask me about "The Case for Pluto." The book promotion schedule includes a "Science on Tap" talk in Seattle on Monday.