Johns Hopkins University this year is celebrating 40 years since its Homewood campus in Baltimore was selected as the location of NASA’s Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in 1981.
The STScI has also served as the science operations center for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope for 31 years, since the telescope was launched in 1990.
“Much has changed in the field of astronomy over that time as Hubble has revolutionized our understanding of astrophysical phenomena,” STScI director Kenneth Sembach said in a statement. “We’ve grown and changed as well to meet the needs of the astronomical community, create new avenues for exploration, and engage the public in the wonders of the universe.”
The STScI shares Hubble’s data, discoveries and images with the astronomical community and the general public. The institute’s scientific staff members also conduct their own research, produce hundreds of peer-reviewed articles per year, and help lead initiatives to guide future astrophysics research.
“In 1976, a committee of the National Academy of Sciences proposed a radical idea that STScI should run Hubble,” Matt Mountain, president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), said in a statement. “Working in partnership with the scientific community and NASA, the new organization’s sole job was to advocate for the science.”
Since STScI’s inception, the institute has helped advance scientific exploration and broaden society’s understanding of space.
“Today, no one doubts the value of that prescient decision by NASA to create STScI to run the science program for the Hubble Space Telescope,” Mountain said. “Driven by the science of the astronomical community, Hubble has become the scientific ‘gold standard’ and a global brand, precisely because STScI has retained the scientific independence and integrity entrusted to AURA and its partner Johns Hopkins University.”
STScI’s first director, Riccardo Giacconi, and his team pioneered efforts to make astronomy more accessible to general users. Early steps included the creation of the world’s first digitized sky catalog for aiming the telescope, and the development of a complex automation system to plan, schedule and archive observations. Those steps helped guide future NASA space astrophysics missions.
In 2001, NASA selected the institute to serve as the science and mission operations center for the James Webb Space Telescope, which NASA plans to launch in October 2021.
Institute officials said the Webb Telescope will be “the largest, most powerful and complex space telescope ever built and launched into space.” The telescope’s infrared detectors will be able to observe the first galaxies and peer inside dust clouds where stars and planetary systems are currently forming.
The STScI will also be involved with science operations for NASA’s Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, which is planned to launch in the mid-2020s. The Roman Space Telescope’s panoramic field of view will be 100 times greater than Hubble’s and will be used to create the first wide-field maps of the universe at space-based resolution, STScI officials said.
“I can hardly wait to see what the future holds as we look ahead to many more years of Hubble operations, the launch of Webb, and the upcoming Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope,” Sembach said in a statement.
The STScI also oversees the Barbara A. Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST), which was established at the outset of the Hubble mission in 1990 and expanded in 1997.
Through the archive, astronomers are able access data from more than 20 space missions and ground-based observatories.
The institute also developed a process for reviewing requests for Hubble observation time that hides the requesters’ names and locations. After the review process successfully achieved gender parity, NASA decided to mandate its use for all of its future astrophysics missions.
STSci’s ability to oversee so many different projects and initiatives is part of the institute’s strength as a scientific institution, said STScI deputy director Nancy Levenson
“Supporting multiple missions is a strength of STScI, and we use this breadth to benefit the
astronomical community,” Levenson said in a statement. “Researchers want to take advantage of all the capabilities, and we help them do it. We work to make these missions and their observations accessible to all astronomers, to advance science overall.”
President Jimmy Carter, a friend of Baltimore, announced the decision to locate at Hopkins on his last day in office.
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