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Astronomer Sings Hubble Telescope's Praises

REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

Three hundred and fifty miles above your head today, astronauts from the Space Shuttle Atlantis were on their third space walk. Their task, repair the camera on the Hubble Space Telescope and install new observation equipment. With help from the Hubble, astronomers have explored many things about our universe, from black holes at the center of galaxies to how our galaxy was born. Hubble highlights today on Science out of the Box.

(Soundbite of music)

With us to discuss the Hubble's greatest hits is Dave Rodrigues, better known as the AstroWizard, at least to kids in the San Francisco Bay Area. This is a guy who puts on a pointy wizard hat and sets up his telescope on street corners just to share his enthusiasm for astronomy. He's also a lecturer and director of the Eastbay Astronomical Society in Oakland, California.

Welcome, Dave.

Mr. DAVE RODRIGUES (Lecturer and Director, Eastbay Astronomical Society): Hi, Rebecca. And don't forget, I do explosions and magic as well.

ROBERTS: So we're here today to talk about the Hubble's greatest contributions to science. One, of course, is helping scientists figure out something called the Hubble Constant. What is that?

Mr. RODRIGUES: Yes. Well, the Hubble Constant is the rate of expansion that we see as we look further and further out into space.

ROBERTS: And how did the Hubble telescope help us figure that out?

Mr. RODRIGUES: Well, the Hubble has measured the distance to the farthest supernova we've ever seen out in a galaxy that is three and a half billion light years away. And by measuring that standard candle, that sort of standard distance, we're able to measure everything else in the universe. It was an extremely important measurement. And by using that, we were able to determine the Hubble Constant, and by doing that, we were able to determine the age of the universe. But, by the way, which is thirteen billion seven hundred million years plus or minus two hundred million years.

ROBERTS: You know, so much of our sort of knowledge and affinity for astronomy comes from popular culture. So this is for fans of the movies "Armageddon" or "Deep Impact."

Mr. RODRIGUES: Yes.

ROBERTS: I understand the Hubble has helped show what happens when an object collides with a planet.

Mr. RODRIGUES: It's not very pleasant Rebecca.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Are you sure you want me to tell you about this?

ROBERTS: Well, in the interest of science.

Mr. RODRIGUES: Okay, in the interest of science. Maybe we should warn all the parents to have their children leave the room. Yes. In 1994, a comet collided with Jupiter, Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, and the Hubble Space Telescope provided these marvelous - the best images we have of the collision of this comet. It was called a string of pearls comet. And it broke up into over 22 pieces and each piece collided with Jupiter, and each explosion was approximately the size of the Earth.

ROBERTS: The images that Hubble sends back have been so incredible. Do you think...

Mr. RODRIGUES: Yes.

ROBERTS: ...just those pictures have changed the way we think about the scope of our universe?

Mr. RODRIGUES: Oh, I know they have. You know, I must talk to tens of thousands of kids every year and I incorporate Hubble images in all of my programs. And one of the most rewarding things I get is to listen to the involuntary gasps of people and children when they see these images and when they see some other images that they're not familiar with. The most famous Hubble image, for example, is that famous picture of the Hubble, of the Eagle nebula. When they look at that image, I want them to find the smallest dot they can find in that image.

That dot is the size of our solar system. In that picture, you can see baby solar systems that are in the process of being born. There's actually one star that is just turned on in the lower right side of that image and it is just gorgeous. And it just - to see something like that and to think that we are the first generation to be able to understand these very profound processes that gave birth to us and to our civilization, I mean, this is what happened to us five billion years ago. Your atoms and my atoms were intermingled in this giant nebula in space and this is how we formed.

ROBERTS: That's Dave Rodrigues, the AstroWizard, joining us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Thanks, Dave.

Mr. RODRIGUES: Thank you. Keep looking up, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: You can see that Eagle nebula photo and many other Hubble hits at our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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