Space Telescope Science Institute Celebrates its 40th Anniversary

In 1981 NASA selected the Johns Hopkins University Homewood campus in Baltimore, Maryland, as the location of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI). STScI would serve as the science operations center for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope (then known as the Large Space Telescope). Nine years later in 1990 Hubble launched, and for the past 31 years STScI has provided Hubble data to the astronomical community, and publicized Hubble’s revolutionary discoveries and inspirational images to the world. As it celebrates its 40th anniversary STScI is looking forward to the future, including the October 2021 launch of NASA’s next flagship mission, the James Webb Space Telescope, as well as other endeavors.

“For the past 40 years, STScI has partnered with NASA and the astronomical community to advance scientific discovery,” said STScI director Kenneth Sembach. “Much has changed in the field of astronomy over that time as Hubble has revolutionized our understanding of astrophysical phenomena. 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. 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.”

STScI is best known for its role in the Hubble mission. As science operations center, the Institute enables scientists around the world to make maximum use of Hubble’s unique capabilities to conduct cutting-edge science. STScI personnel strive not only to maintain but also continuously improve Hubble operations, ensuring that the telescope will provide quality data for years into the future. Members of the institute’s scientific staff also conduct their own research, producing hundreds of peer-reviewed articles each year, and help lead initiatives guiding the future of astrophysics research.

“In 1976, a committee of the National Academy of Sciences proposed a radical idea that STScI should run Hubble. Working in partnership with the scientific community and NASA, the new organization’s sole job was to advocate for the science,” commented Matt Mountain, President of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), which runs STScI. “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. 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.”

In planning for Hubble’s launch and science operations, STScI was instrumental in making a transformative change to how astronomy is conducted. Unlike previous space missions, Hubble was opened to observers around the world. Accordingly, the institute fostered the growth of astronomer teams, which provided opportunities to more researchers. Under the guidance of its first director, Riccardo Giacconi, STScI made a pioneering effort by taking a novel approach to opening up astronomy to general users. The world’s first digitized sky catalog was created for aiming the telescope, and complex automation was developed for planning, scheduling, and archiving observations. This became the guide for future NASA space astrophysics missions.

In 2001 STScI was selected to oversee the science and mission operations of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, planned to launch later this year. Webb will be the largest, most powerful and complex space telescope ever built and launched into space. It will complement and extend the discoveries of Hubble, with infrared detectors that will allow it to observe the first galaxies, as well as look inside dust clouds where stars and planetary systems are forming today.

STScI will also play a key role in the science operations for NASA’s Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, which is planned to launch in the mid-2020s. The Roman Space Telescope will provide a panoramic field of view that is 100 times greater than Hubble’s, leading to the first wide-field maps of the universe at space-based resolution.

“Supporting multiple missions is a strength of STScI, and we use this breadth to benefit the astronomical community. Researchers want to take advantage of all the capabilities, and we help them do it,” said STScI deputy director Nancy Levenson. “We work to make these missions and their observations accessible to all astronomers, to advance science overall.”
 
A key element of the institute’s work is the Barbara A. Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST). Established at the outset of the Hubble mission in 1990, it was expanded in 1997 to include data from other ultraviolet and optical space astronomy missions. Today, MAST provides astronomers access to data from more than 20 space missions and ground-based observatories.

STScI also plays a vital role in the development of technologies for future observatories. The Institute’s Russell B. Makidon Optics Laboratory, created in 2013, conducts research focused on enabling direct images of exoplanets using large segmented telescopes in space, including high-contrast coronagraphy, optical mirror alignments, applications of deformable mirrors for wavefront sensing and control, and digital micromirror devices for multi-object spectroscopy.

In addition to its scientific leadership, STScI strives to be a leader in diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I). The Institute pioneered the use of a dual-anonymous review process, in which scientists reviewing requests for Hubble observing time do not know the names or locations of the proposers. The process proved so successful in achieving gender parity that NASA is mandating it for all its astrophysics missions in the future. The review process is only one element of a broad commitment to DE&I as STScI strives to model the workplace of the future, while also broadening participation in the exploration of the universe.

STScI is a leader in the field of astronomy communications and outreach. The institute’s public outreach team leverages unique access to scientific discoveries, data, and mission experts to produce a broad variety of materials ranging from awe-inspiring images and press releases to videos and in-depth articles. Additional products and learning experiences, grounded in evidence-based learning strategies and externally evaluated, are used by museums, libraries, and other organizations nationwide, as well as the general public. STScI’s outreach team maintains a web presence for core science missions, provides support for the Space Astronomy Summer Program (SASP) for undergraduates, and leverages new technologies to create virtual reality (VR) and other interactive experiences. STScI also leads the multi-institutional NASA’s Universe of Learning project.

To learn more about the history of the Space Telescope Science Institute, visit https://www.stsci.edu/who-we-are/our-history/stsci-timeline.

The Space Telescope Science Institute is expanding the frontiers of space astronomy by hosting the science operations center of the Hubble Space Telescope, the science and operations center for the James Webb Space Telescope, and the science operations center for the future Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. STScI also houses the Barbara A. Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST) which is a NASA-funded project to support and provide to the astronomical community a variety of astronomical data archives, and is the data repository for the Hubble, Webb, Kepler, K2, TESS missions, and more. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.