Press Release

Hubble Space Telescope Stand-in Gets Starring Role

By SpaceRef Editor
September 21, 2001
Filed under , ,

With its famous twin orbiting 370 miles above Earth
inside NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, the almost forgotten
Earth-bound back-up mirror is finally about to step into the
spotlight and get some attention of its own.

While Hubble continues to show off the wonders of the cosmos,
the 2.4-meter (94.5-inch) diameter back-up mirror goes on
permanent display, starting tomorrow, as part of the “Explore
The Universe” exhibit in the Smithsonian Institution’s
National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

Large concave mirrors are the heart of large astronomical
telescopes. These mirrors gather the faint light from distant
objects, and specially built cameras and other instruments
can be used to study those objects in different ways. The
larger the mirror, the more powerful the telescope. On Earth,
the largest and most powerful telescopes are located on
mountaintops where the thin air causes fewer distortions such
as the “twinkling” of stars caused by air turbulence.

The largest telescopes on Earth have mirrors measuring 10
meters (33 feet) in diameter, far larger than Hubble’s
reflector. However, Hubble has a major advantage: it is in
space where there is no air to distort the images, giving it
a sharper view of the universe than any telescope ever built.

When NASA began building Hubble in the late 1970s, the space
agency decided that the building of the primary mirror was so
challenging and so crucial to the science program that it was
a good idea to build a back-up copy.

Hubble’s primary mirror was built by what was then called
Perkin-Elmer Corporation, in Danbury, Conn. The company is
now Hughes Danbury Optical Systems Inc. The back-up was built
by the Eastman Kodak Company, Rochester, N.Y. Kodak, which
used a more traditional method of grinding the mirror,
completed the back-up mirror in 1980, before Perkin-Elmer
completed the primary mirror.

Because Kodak used different equipment for monitoring and
testing the mirror during fabrication, that mirror did not
have the optical flaw that was unknowingly built into the
Perkin-Elmer mirror.

As the space telescope was constructed and launched, the
Kodak back-up mirror sat in its shipping crate in Danbury,
Conn. It was eventually impounded along with other materials
relating to the investigation of the mirror flaw on Hubble.

The Kodak mirror, a “near-twin” of the flawed Perkin-Elmer
mirror, proved invaluable as It was used in tests to find out
exactly what went wrong with the fabrication of the primary
mirror aboard Hubble. Ultimately the problem was traced to
miscalibrated equipment.

There was no practical way NASA could swap out the good
mirror for the flawed mirror in space, but it turned out that
the best solution was to build corrective optics that fixed
the flaw much the same way a pair of glasses correct the
vision of a near-sighted person.

The corrective optics and new instruments were built and
installed on Hubble by spacewalking astronauts during a
shuttle mission in 1993, and the telescope has been at the
forefront of astronomy ever since.

The back-up mirror, its job done, was returned to storage and
relative obscurity while its high-flying sister advanced the
frontiers of science and grabbed the headlines. Starting
tomorrow, however, that may change as Earthlings have their
first opportunity to get acquainted with the twin of Hubble’s
huge glass heart.

More information about Hubble Space Telescope is available on
the Internet at:

The Explore the Universe Web site is at:

SpaceRef staff editor.