Small Problem With The Mirror
Within weeks of the launch of the telescope, the returned images indicated a serious problem with the optical system. Although the first images appeared to be sharper than those of ground-based telescopes, Hubble failed to achieve a final sharp focus and the best image quality obtained was drastically lower than expected. Images of point sources spread out over a radius of more than one arcsecond, instead of having a point spread function (PSF) concentrated within a circle 0.1 arcsec in diameter as had been specified in the design criteria.
Hubble is deployed from Discovery in 1990.
Analysis of the flawed images showed that the cause of the problem was that the primary mirror had been ground to the wrong shape. Although it was probably the most precisely figured mirror ever made, with variations from the prescribed curve of only 10 nanometers, at the perimeter it was too flat by about 2,200 nanometers (2.2 micrometres). This difference was catastrophic, introducing severe spherical aberration, a flaw in which light reflecting off the edge of a mirror focuses on a different point from the light reflecting off its center.
The effect of the mirror flaw on scientific observations depended on the particular observationâ€”the core of the aberrated PSF was sharp enough to permit high-resolution observations of bright objects, and spectroscopy was largely unaffected. However, the loss of light to the large, out of focus halo severely reduced the usefulness of the telescope for faint objects or high-contrast imaging. This meant that nearly all of the cosmological programs were essentially impossible, since they required observation of exceptionally faint objects. NASA and the telescope became the butt of many jokes, and the project was popularly regarded as a white elephant. (For instance, in the 1991 comedy The Naked Gun 2Â½: The Smell of Fear, the Hubble was pictured with the Titanic, the Hindenburg, and the Edsel). Nonetheless, during the first three years of the Hubble mission, before the optical corrections, the telescope still carried out a large number of productive observations. The error was well characterized and stable, enabling astronomers to optimize the results obtained using sophisticated image processing techniques such as deconvolution.