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Hubble spots vibrant auroras on Jupiter, gets another 5 years in service

The development of the Hubble Space Telescope stretches all the way back to the 1970s. The telescope was deployed in orbit in 1990, but it was never intended to operate for this long. The science done by Hubble has been so important that NASA upgraded and serviced the instrument repeatedly over the years. Today, Hubble is still sending back incredible images of galaxies, nebulae, and the auroras on Jupiter. And it’s not nearly done yet.

In the run-up to Juno’s arrival in orbit of Jupiter, astronomers turned Hubble’s gaze toward the gas giant. Jupiter has a magnetic field like Earth, so it too has auroras. However, the auroras on Earth (eg. the northern lights) are caused only by charged particles from the solar wind. Jupiter’s auroras are caused by charged particles from a variety of sources, including the solar wind and Jupiter’s network of moons. The auroras on Jupiter are always visible to some degree, because its magnetic field is so much more powerful than Earth’s. Hubble’s recent examination provided some of the most stunning images to date (taken with the Wide Field Camera 3).

This observation is part of a month-long analysis of Jupiter’s auroras to see how they vary with the solar wind. Juno carries instruments that will analyze the properties of charged particles “blowing” across the solar system on the wind. Hubble is still an indispensable instrument, even after more than a quarter century in service — it’s taken a lot of awe-inspiring images, too.

Hubble in orbit

NASA and other space agencies will launch the hugely delayed James Webb Space Telescope in 2018 to begin taking over many of Hubble’s duties. However, the Webb telescope will be positioned much farther away than Hubble, which is in low-Earth orbit. Webb will be deployed at the L2 Lagrange point about 1.5 million kilometers (960,000 miles) away on the opposite side of the moon. It has an operational life of 5-10 years (hopefully more), but it won’t be feasible to service the instrument like we have Hubble.

The last service mission for Hubble was in 2009 during one of the last Space Shuttle flights. The telescope was previously scheduled to be retired from service on July 1, 2016, but NASA acted to extend the mission by five years. The Jupiter study would have been Hubble’s last major operation, but considering the relatively low cost of operating Hubble, extending the mission was kind of a no-brainer. More than 10,000 studies have been published based on Hubble data since it entered service. The current end date for Hubble operation is June 20, 2021. Webb should be up and running by then.

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