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Why Hubble is worth every penny

The Hubble Space Telescope is one of the most expensive information-gathering tools NASA has ever created. But Don Reisinger thinks it's worth every penny.

A planetary nebula captured with Hubble. NASA

Space is an interesting subject. It arguably matters most to our knowledge of life. Understanding issues affecting the universe today will help us recognize them as they impact our lives going forward. And since we simply don't have the ability to explore space the way it would be required to fully understand our history, it's the Hubble Space Telescope that we must rely on to provide that for us.

But it's not without its critics. With each new service mission (including the latest), critics have contended that Hubble simply costs too much for what we're getting. And according to one U.S. legislator, it's to the detriment of other programs.

"We have to make hard choices about whether a Hubble mission is worth it now, when moving ahead is likely to have an adverse impact on other programs, including quite possibly other programs in astronomy," Sherwood Boehlert, a former Republican congressman from New York, said in 2005.

Hubble's cost is certainly high. According to NASA, the telescope has cost the United States $9.6 billion since its launch in 1990. In that time, critics remind us that scientists still haven't determined the real age of the universe; they still don't know, for sure, how the galaxy was formed, and they wonder if all those pictures Hubble sends back are really all that important.

Yes, they are.

Hubble's importance

I won't go into the history of Hubble (after all, you can find that anywhere), but I think it's important, especially as astronauts come back to Earth after improving it, that we consider some of the advancements Hubble has provided.

One of the main goals of Hubble, when it was first launched in 1990, was to measure the rate at which the universe is expanding in an effort to determine its exact age. According to NASA, that rate had errors of up to 50 percent before Hubble launched. Today, the rate of errors is just 10 percent, thanks to Hubble.

In 1994, Hubble helped scientists determine that black holes exist at the heart of every active galaxy. Prior to that discovery, scientists believed that black holes were found only in certain areas or in the middle of a select number of galaxies.

Hubble has also provided scientists with views deep into the universe. With the help of Hubble, scientists are able to see galaxies, supernovas, and other phenomena billions of light years away. That's not important just for the cool pictures. It gives astronomers deeper insight into how galaxies and the universe were formed. And it helps us understand how our own galaxy could act in the future.

Nebulae, which are basically flattened disks of gas and dust, were thought to be the birthplace of planetary systems. Thanks to Hubble, that hypothesis was confirmed when it captured those disks around young stars. It gives us significant insight into the formation of our own planetary system.

I could go on, but the laundry list of advancements Hubble has provided us with is far too long to be documented here. Is it costly? Sure. Could it have been built better to weather space conditions more effectively? Of course.

But for all its faults and costs, they pale in comparison to all of the knowledge Hubble has given us. Simply put, the Hubble Space Telescope has proven its worth. And I don't believe there's any debating that argument.

Check out Don's Digital Home podcast, Twitter stream, and FriendFeed.