Open Mic Night at the Hubble Telescope

In the 1990s, the Space Telescope Science Institute accepted proposals from amateur astronomers for a few hours of telescope time.

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Apr 24 2015, 10:00am

Image: ​NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

There's a common affliction among amateur astronomers called aperture envy—a desire for time on ever-larger telescopes. For those who suffer from it, using the Hubble Space Telescope must be the ultimate fantasy.

Hubble turns 25 this year. It was launched on April 24, 1990, following a delay caused by the Challenger disaster. And early in its mission, 12 amateurs actually lived that fantasy, having had the opportunity to use the $1.5-billion ​telescope for research of their own.

Riccardo Giacconi was the first director of the Space Telescope Scien​ce Institute (STScI), which is responsible for Hubble's operations. Before the telescope's launch, he a​nnounced that he would dedicate a small fraction of his discretionary time for amateur use. The program was intended, wrote STScI spokesman Ray Villard in an email, "as a big 'thank you' to the amateur astronomer community for their synergy with professional astronomy."

"A lot of people think I went up on the space shuttle to use [Hubble]," laughed George Lewycky 

Although the time allotted for amateur use was just a few hours per year, it irked many professional astronomers who were also competing for time on the new telescope and depended on it for their research. "There is too much to be done by the professionals to allow any such amateurs to receive even less than one percent of Hubble's total telescope time," one scientist is quoted as saying in Eric Chaisson's book The Hubble Wars (Chaisson was an STScI astronomer who ran the HST amateur program).

Nevertheless, the program went ahead—and according to a 1997 article in Sky and Telescope magazine, approximately 200 proposals were received for the first amateur cycle in 1992.

Jim Secosky was a high school teacher in upstate New York at the time. He grew up during the space race of the 1950s and 1960s and worked odd jobs as a child to earn enough money to buy his first telescope. "I just wanted to use this great telescope so badly," Secosky remembered. He submitted seven preliminary proposals for a slice of Giacconi's discretionary time.

Three of those ideas passed the first round of cuts, and he convinced his school board to grant him a one-semester sabbatical to research and write three more detailed proposals. The extra time paid off; his plan to study an unsolved mystery on Io, one of Jupiter's moons, was selected and Secosky became the first amateur astronomer to use Hubble.

A photo taken on April 25, 1990, the day after Hubble's launch. Image: NASA

The goal of Secosky's observation was to prove or disprove a phenomenon that had been periodically noted by astronomers using ground-based telescopes while studying the volcanic Io. On several occasions, the moon appeared brighter when it emerged from an eclipse behind Jupiter, but no one knew why. With the images from Hubble, unobstructed by Earth's atmosphere, Secosky demonstrated that Io's variable brightness was actually just an illusion—findings he published in the prestigious scientific journal Icarus.​

But using Hubble was not nearly as glamorous as some might think. Astronomers don't just wander up and stick their faces in the eyepiece, as they might with a regular telescope. It is, after all, flying at a velocity of 28,000 km/h around the Earth. 

The reality, Secosky explained, is his observation took place one morning, around 2:30 AM. He sat in the basement of the STScI at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, surrounded by television and computer monitors, and waited for his images to arrive.

"A lot of people think I went up on the space shuttle to use it," laughed George Lewycky, another Hubble amateur, ​who studied the atmosphere of Saturn's giant moon Titan during the second amateur cycle in 1993. Lewycky, a computer programmer from New Jersey, used Hubble's spectrograph to look for the presence of formaldehyde—which, if combined with hydrogen cyanide, can form one of the building blocks of DNA.

Hubble images of Jupiter's moon Io sweeping across the planet. Image: ​John Spencer (Lowell Observatory)/NASA

To this day, Lewycky is still going through the painstaking process of eliminating extraneous solar data from his observation to isolate the readings from Titan. "It was a lot more than I expected and more than I bargained for," he laughed. "I didn't know what I had gotten myself into until I got the data."

Benjamin Weiss was the youngest of the amateurs selected—just a 19-year-old undergrad at Amherst College when he used Hubble to observe asteroids during the same cycle as Lewycky. He first heard about the amateur program at a high school summer science camp. They happened to be studying asteroids, and so, with a few friends, he, "cooked up this idea to look for moons around asteroids."

"They had been predicted to exist, but they'd never been observed," Weiss explained. "And there's a really important reason you might want to look for that—not just that it's cool, which obviously it is—but you can't tell the mass of a body without tracking something that's orbiting it."

"My first telescope that I ever used was the Hubble Space Telescope," said Benjamin Weiss

At the time, Weiss didn't consider himself an amateur astronomer. Even now, more than 20 years later, he sounded incredulous that his proposal was accepted in the first place. "My first telescope that I ever used was the Hubble Space Telescope," he said, "which really shows you how cool these guys were for coming up with this crazy idea to bring people in who have no business being there!"

Unfortunately, Weiss and his friends did not find any moons on the five asteroids they observed—nor were any found on five other asteroids surveyed by Hubble the same year. But in August 1993, the Galileo spacecraft did discover a small moon orbiting another asteroid. "Of course, it really bummed us out, but it was also super exciting," Weiss remembered. "And it made us think, 'Hey, at least we were on to something.'"

Although the group was able to ​publish an article based on their observations, Weiss acknowledged that they required significant assistance from the staff at STScI. "The Institute had to devote someone full-time to help us with these fairly complicated image-processing techniques," he said. "Every aspect of it, we needed a lot of help with, so I give them a lot of credit for devoting that manpower."

But the extra support required by the amateurs was one of the reasons the program was eventually cancelled. Faced with looming budget cuts, the demands of the amateur program proved too much for STScI to handle.

"Basically, the concern about the program was that only a handful of amateur astronomers had the opportunity to use Hubble for programs that were, at best, of questionable scientific value and more of a PR activity," wrote Villard.

Astronauts Steven L. Smith and John M. Grunsfeld are photographed during an extravehicular activity (EVA) during the December 1999 Hubble servicing mission of STS-103. Image: ​NASA/JSC

It also didn't help that, in later cycles, there was a remarkable dearth of proposals. Lewycky said it took him seven months to research and write his proposal while working full-time and Secosky worked on his proposals for eight hours a day during his sabbatical. Unsurprisingly, most amateurs did not have that much time to devote to proposals that had no guarantee of being accepted.

Despite urgings from the amateurs who had used the Hubble, the program was cancelled in 1994 by Giacconi's successor and the last of the 12 amateur proposals carried out in 1997.

"What [Giacconi] did was so unconventional and so unnecessary," said Weiss, now a professor of planetary sciences​ at MIT. "I'm sure it didn't win him much kudos from all the professional astronomers who were dying to get time on the Hubble. He just didn't have to do that."

But he did. And although the Hubble amateur program did not result in any major scientific breakthroughs, it did create a handful of ambassadors who continue to tout the telescope's benefits to this day.