In May of 2009, the crew of Space Shuttle Atlantis oversaw the fifth and final service mission of the Hubble Space Telescope, known to NASA as STS-125 or Hubble Space Telescope Servicing Mission 4. The mission called for delicate repairs and state-of-the-art upgrades, including the instillation of the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (to study the formation and evolution of galaxies) and the Wide Field Camera 3 (which captures images on the visible spectrum). The crew also had to replace one of the telescope’s three Fine Guidance Sensors, six gyroscopes, and two battery unit modules. The mission was a success, completed in less than thirteen days. Because of the crew’s efforts, Hubble will continue to operate until at least 2014, when it’s expected to be replaced by the James Webb Space Telescope.
IMAX’s Hubble 3D, narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, is in part a documentation of this mission, made possible due to the IMAX Space Team and the specially designed IMAX 3D camera. While hardly an exhaustive account – which is just as well, since it would mean having to endure confusing technobabble and a slew of acronyms known only to NASA personnel – we’re shown some impressive spacewalk and repair footage, aided greatly by the ever-present backdrop of Earth. We also get some insightful, if brief, moments with the Atlantis crew, including a demonstration of how to dress for a spacewalk, a discussion of some of the tools they will be using, and an amusing look at what an astronaut can eat and how it’s made possible. There’s a general sense of enthusiasm amongst the seven astronauts, although that may have more to do with the camera crew than with the actual mission.
We don’t get a detailed history of the Hubble itself. Its original 1990 launch, for example, and the subsequent three-year odyssey to repair its design flaw are mentioned in passing, drastically downplaying the time, money, and effort that was spent to get it working properly. You have to understand that this is by no means a cheap piece of machinery; its initial cost was estimated at around $400 million, and that figure has only increased with time. With so much invested in it, there was an understandable backlash when it was apparent that there was an error with the optical system, the returned images failing to achieve sharp focus. The cause of the problem was the telescope’s primary mirror, which had been ground to the wrong shape – the edges were off measurement by 2,200 nanometers, and to give you some perspective, a single nanometer is about 1/100th the width of a human hair. The flaw was corrected in 1993 during Service Mission 1, known as STS-61, with the instillation of specially designed corrective optics.
Since then, Hubble has captured a number of remarkable images. Because of its orbit outside the distortion of Earth’s atmosphere, there’s virtually no background light, allowing for the sharpest quality pictures. Consider the Ultra Deep Field image, which captures a small section of space in the constellation Fornax and is composited from four months worth of data; it reveals a cluster of galaxies of all shapes, ages, and colors, and it remains to this day the deepest image of space ever captured, looking back approximately 13 billion years. The film takes data similar to this and transforms it into breathtaking computer generated flights through distant regions of space. One scene in particular takes us into the Orion Nebula, where a massive group of stars form in a crevice that spans 90 million light years. Given time, some of those stars may form solar systems very much like our own.
This is the second part of what Hubble 3D is: An awe-inspiring journey, a deeply thought-provoking foray into the great unknown. It has the power to make you think, to raise questions about ourselves, about where it all came from, about what it all means. It wisely avoids speculation; it merely presents the material as is, and your mind does the rest. The fact that it’s all presented in 3D only adds to the wonder. Plenty has been said about James Cameron’s Avatar – and I’ve certainly contributed – but Hubble 3D is by far the best 3D film I’ve ever seen. Never have I felt so deeply immersed, so entirely a part of the world projected up on the screen. It reaches a level so rarely reached by the hordes of 3D movies released on conventionally sized screens.
If there is a weakness to Hubble 3D, it’s that it doesn’t spend enough time on its subject. It clocks in at a measly forty-five minutes – on television, that would amount to an hour-long special. I would have greatly appreciated an expansion of telescope’s history, including who designed it, how it was funded, when it was built, how it affected popular culture, and so on. The images it has captured, after all, are the reason we can create such accurate computer generated maps of nebulas and galaxies. I don’t believe we can truly appreciate the contributions the Hubble has made without first knowing what went into making them possible. Sure, any book or internet site can fill you in on the details, but if you’re already at the theater, you might as well learn everything you need to know there.