Son of Hubble

The Hubble Telescope has shut itself down after 30 years, but its replacement is expected to blast into space later this year - and peer even further back in time to the origins of the universe.

In April 1990, the Space Shuttle Discovery launched into space and deployed the Hubble Space Telescope into its 380 mile orbit. The Hubble became the most successful telescope of its kind, literally causing the astronomical community to rewrite the textbooks.

Hubble has seen the most distant galaxy ever observed - one that formed 400 million years after the Big Bang, a mere 3 percent of the universe's current age. At closer distances, it has photographed hundreds of thousands of ancient galaxies that formed nearly ten billion years before the Earth existed, each galaxy a vast and thriving stellar metropolis where hundreds of billions of stars were born, lived their lives, and died.

Hubble discovered moons orbiting Pluto, and proved that almost every galaxy has a supermassive black hole at its heart. It even helped create a vast three-dimensional map of dark matter, a substance that can't be seen, and the existence of which can only be inferred through precise astronomical measurements of ordinary matter. Hubble hasn't always functioned flawlessly, but by almost any measure, it's had a pretty awesome career.

It's important to revisit Hubble's successes, now that a crucial component that operated the telescope has stopped working. A couple of weeks ago, the instrument automatically placed itself in safe mode and notified NASA operators of the situation. The operators tried valiantly to fix the stubborn computer, to no avail. The era of the Hubble Space Telescope is over.

But the good news is that a replacement for Hubble has been in the works for a while now. This new instrument is called the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and it has some great things going for it. Its power is increased a hundredfold, allowing it to better see infrared light, and thereby peer farther back into the past. JWST will be able to see objects 200 million years after the universe was created - what's known as the cosmic dawn - and the hope is that JWST might be able to capture light from single stars within that first generation of stars, something that's long been a goal of astronomers.