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From Bee Branch to the Universe

From Bee Branch to the Universe

The Hubble Space Telescope was launched 25 years ago, on April 25, 1990. The anniversary itself launched a wave of media coverage, because 25 years in space is a long time.

Apart from longevity, the Hubble is one of science’s great hero-to-zero-to hero tales. After more than a decade in development, the Hubble was sent aloft on promises that it would be the biggest thing in astronomy since Galileo put his eye to a telescope. When the first pictures came back, however, they were blurry. The main mirror was out of whack by a dimension 1/50th the thickness of a human hair. Hubble was a $1.5 billion boondoggle.

Or so it seemed. In 1993, NASA sent astronauts up to the Hubble with a fix, sort of a set of eyeglasses that would correct the telescope’s vision. Subsequent images were crystal clear. Since then, the Hubble has more than lived up to its original hype. It has helped scientists answer fundamental questions such as how many stars are in the sky (the number is a 2 followed by 22 zeroes) and the age of the universe (13.7 billion years).

The whole Hubble drama is beautifully told in the NOVA special “Invisible Universe Revealed,” which aired April 22 on PBS, and is also available in its entirety at PBS.org. If you catch the show, make a note of appearances by NASA astrophysicist Dr. Amber Straughn, a 2002 University of Arkansas graduate and native of Bee Branch, Ark.

Straughn, who describes herself on her website as “NASA astrophysicist, Arkansas farm girl, pilot, yogini, home brewer, Great Dane mom, Razorback football fan,” credits the dark night skies over Bee Branch for firing her interest in astronomy. After graduating from the U of A with a bachelor’s degree in physics, she went on to Arizona State for masters and Ph.D. degrees in physics.

These days she spends her time at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland interpreting data collected by the Hubble and working on the its replacement, the James Webb Space Telescope. And she’s something of a media darling, popping up as an interviewee on news shows and panels whenever the topic of the Hubble comes up. She’s even been in a rap video about the world’s most productive scientific instrument.

That’s a long way from Bee Branch.

About The Author

Bob Whitby writes about bioscience, geoscience, physics, space and planetary sciences, psychology and sociology. Reach him at 479-575-4737, or whitby@uark.edu.

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