Since launching in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has shed much light on our understanding of the universe, from guiding space probes through the outer reaches of our solar system to previewing how our sun will die. And it looks set to continue peering into the cosmos for a while yet, with NASA extending its science operations contract through to the year 2021.
As the first major optical telescope to be launched into space, Hubble has made more than 1.2 million observations while whizzing around the Earth at 17,000 mph (27,358 km/h). Its data has appeared in more than 12,800 research papers, making it one of the more fruitful scientific instruments ever produced.
But all good space telescope missions must come to an end. So while carrying out a number of servicing operations and upgrades, NASA has been planning for life after Hubble by building a successor, the James Webb Space Telescope scheduled to launch in 2018.
The JWST will build on Hubble's discoveries by bringing something new to the table, an infrared telescope (Hubble mostly, but not always, studies the universe in optical and ultraviolet wavelengths). Scientists expect that this will allow them to observe more distant objects in the universe whose light has been pushed into the near-infrared.
And with this advanced instrument waiting in the wings, it now looks like the pair of telescopes will be sharing the stage for at least a little while. NASA has awarded a contract extension to the Association of University for Research in Astronomy for science operations to continue at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore until June 30, 2021. But according to NASA, Hubble may continue providing data beyond that and well into the 2020's.
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