Technology Benefits

Hubble's mission is to capture observations of the universe, but its technology has altered life on the ground in unique and unexpected ways.

Quick Facts

The Hubble Space Telescope was designed to be on the cutting edge of technology, a precisely designed instrument that would bring humanity new views of the cosmos through feats of engineering. As a result, a wealth of technological advances were born of both its creation and the periodic servicing missions that supplied it with new and powerful components.

Along the way, the technology used to help the Hubble mission continuously push the bounds of exploration and cosmic understanding found new uses in an array of earthly applications – from medicine to manufacturing and from wildlife conservation to winning Olympic gold.

A wealth of new technologies, many with applications here on Earth, stem from technology designed for NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.
Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Katrina Jackson

Wildlife Conservation

Tracking Endangered Sharks

To track endangered whale sharks, marine biologists photograph patterns of white spots on a shark’s skin, which are as unique to whale sharks as fingerprints are to humans.

But examining and matching the photographs by eye is tedious and time consuming. So a software programmer teamed up with a NASA astronomer to take a star-matching algorithm developed for Hubble and modified it to recognize the spots on individual whale sharks. This has helped observers across the globe catalog over 43,000 encounters with more than 8,800 different whale sharks over two decades. Researchers have adapted this algorithm to track other types of endangered sharks and giant sea bass that also have distinctive spot patterns on their skin.

A white-spotted whale shark swims in a blue ocean.
Whale sharks have unique spot patterns on their skin that can be used to identify specific individuals.
Amber Cook


Reading the Dead Sea Scrolls

Technology developed for Hubble and the Galileo space probe’s charge coupled devices (CCDs), which capture the telescope's digital images, has also been used to help read deteriorated sections of the 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls.

To the naked eye, some of the black ink on the scroll fragments could not be distinguished from the age-darkened parchment. However, CCDs equipped with a tunable filter could image the fragments in longer, infrared wavelengths that increased the contrast between the ink and the parchment. Computer image-enhancement techniques revealed previously illegible text, including a string of Hebrew letters that translate into “He wrote the words of Noah.”

A series of images of the same section of the Dead Sea Scrolls, with the text in each image becoming progressively clearer as it is enhanced.
A section of the Dead Sea Scrolls becomes legible with the aid of image processing.


Less Painful Biopsies and Faster Treatment

To investigate the universe’s mysteries, Hubble must have highly sensitive charge coupled devices (CCDs), which convert light into digital images.

To investigate the universe’s mysteries, Hubble must have highly sensitive charge coupled devices (CCDs), which convert light into digital images. Hubble’s advanced CCD technology has also helped a digital mammography biopsy system image breast tissue more clearly and efficiently than before. It allows doctors to locate and take detailed X-ray images of suspicious tissue, then guide a needle to retrieve a sample. This procedure requires local rather than general anesthesia, and a needle instead of a scalpel, saving patients time, pain, scarring, radiation exposure and money.
Furthermore, astronomical image processing techniques used to sharpen Hubble’s early images have also proven effective in identifying microcalcifications in mammograms (such as those seen in the accompanying image), which are indicative of breast cancer. When applied to mammograms, software techniques developed to increase the dynamic range and spatial resolution of Hubble’s initially blurry images allowed doctors to spot smaller calcifications than they could before, leading to earlier detection and treatment. The sooner the cancer is found and treated, the better the chances are that a patient will make a full recovery and preserve her quality of life.

Two medical workers in white coats work at an imaging machine. A patient in a hospital gown lies on a platform on top of the machine.
A breast biopsy system using Hubble detector technology offers less invasive procedures.
Hologic, Inc.


Helping Preserve Historic Documents

Although the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights are protected in argon-filled glass casings, they can still suffer damage from light, vibration and humidity, and their ink may fade, flake or wear off.

The Charters of Freedom Monitoring System was designed to scan these documents using detector technology developed for Hubble. The system revealed degradation invisible to the human eye, allowing conservators to act early to halt the deterioration.

A letter "R" on a historic document is shown in pink outlined in blue, as a result of false-color imaging. The R is speckled with blue. The background of the document is primarily yellow, with swaths of green and blue.
This false-color image, generated by the Charters of Freedom Monitoring System, shows where ink has begun flaking on a historic document.


Polishing Tool Helps Win Olympic Gold

At the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002, U.S. speed skater Chris Witty won gold and set a new world record in the 1,000-meter race.

The blades on Witty’s skates had been polished with a new tool created, with help from NASA, to reduce friction and provide a smoother glide. The tool’s development was inspired by mirror-polishing techniques used to produce high-quality optics for Hubble and other NASA observatories. Speed skates polished with this instrument showed a distinct improvement over conventionally treated skates.

A skater wearing a red and black uniform with USA emblazoned on it in white letters skates across a rink. She wears googles and a close-fitting black hat.
U.S. speed skater Chris Witty competes at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Nathan Blow Photography / Crawford Family U.S. Olympic Archives, USOC


Data Processing for the Human Genome

Software originally designed to process Hubble’s vast troves of astronomical data was adapted by a private company to manage the bioinformatics data produced by its human genome sequencing projects.

The Operational Pipeline Unified Systems (OPUS) software was created to transform Hubble’s raw data into files that astronomers around the world could use. The genomic company modified the software to similarly process its bioinformatics data in order to make it suitable for researchers, reducing the time and resources needed to develop their own software in house.

DNA strand illustration shows the spiralling ladder helix in blue against a glowing blue mist.
Illustration of DNA strand, adapted from a Creative Commons image.
Nogas1974 - CC BY-SA 4.0


Seeing Inside the Human Body

Cutting-edge technology used to enhance Hubble’s images have been helping doctors obtain better diagnoses during arthroscopic surgery (the visual examination and treatment of a joint such as the knee or shoulder).

Image-processing algorithms from NASA were applied to improve views transmitted from a micro-endoscope, a tool that enables surgeons to see what is happening inside the body in real time. The micro-endoscope requires only local anesthesia and allows the patient to be alert during a procedure. Obtaining clear images from a micro-endoscope eliminates the need for a more invasive procedure that could add time, cost, and discomfort for the patient.

A roughly cyndrilical piece of equipment with three drawers and a handle for manuvering, a screen and keyboard on top, resting on a blue wheeled platform.
This diagnostic system applied Hubble image-processing techniques to provide clearer views inside a patient’s body.
Zimmer Biomet
A round image against a black background. The round image shows marble-like swirls of brown, white and black.
This micro-endoscope view shows a ligament inside of a knee.
Zimmer Biomet


Mirror Technology Improves Computer Chips

The ultraprecise mirror technology designed to improve Hubble’s blurred vision after launch has led to advancements in semiconductor manufacturing.

Techniques used to craft coin-sized corrective mirrors for Hubble, and later to test optics for two of the observatory’s science instruments, have been applied to the manufacturing of optics for microlithography – a method used for printing tiny electronic circuitry, such as in computer chips. The system employs molecular films that absorb and scatter incoming light, enabling superior precision and, consequently, higher productivity and better performance. This technological advance has helped semiconductors become smaller, denser and faster.

A pair of white-gloved hands holds a roughly triangular piece of complex-looking equipment.
Semiconductor manufacturing equipment designed with Hubble mirror technology

Home Improvement

Matching Paint Colors and Improving Optics

To unlock new cosmic secrets, Hubble’s cameras required sophisticated filters that pushed the manufacturing process for filters beyond what had been achieved or even attempted before.

One challenging requirement to put four filters on a single Hubble optic was met by applying multiple color coatings on a single substrate. This solution was later used to develop a paint-matching device for hardware stores. Other requirements for Hubble’s filters – such as filtering for very narrow wavelength ranges, covering the entire optic, and functioning at very low temperatures – led to advances later used in high-end, precision optics for consumer electronics such as cell phones, laptops and tablets.

A paint color sample chart showing red, yellow and green colors, partially folded.
A paint color swatch
Copyright Brett Jordan (via Creative Commons) - CC BY 2.0


Easier Package and Grocery Scanning

Before the first Hubble servicing mission, a Massachusetts company built a laser tool to verify that the corrective optics being sent to Hubble would fix the telescope’s blurry vision.

This laser tool is now being used by all major shipping companies to quickly and accurately create 3D images of packages, determining a package’s dimensions without having to measure the package manually. The tool was also adopted by grocery stores to develop laser scanners that better and more quickly identify products, assisting customers in self-checkout aisles.

A forklift carrying packages, with a cutout of a computer scan superimposed. The scan shows a blurry version of the packages inside an outlined cube.
A laser scanning system measures the dimensions of packages on a pallet.
Northrop Grumman


Precise Scheduling for Hospitals and Manufacturing

Scheduling software developed to manage Hubble’s sequence of observations, which involves time-consuming and often-conflicting tasks, was adapted to create software that optimizes ever-changing hospital schedules.

The software automates rescheduling requests by allocating resources in real time for medical imaging procedures, increasing procedure volume along with reducing backlogs and staff overtime. The software can also display live updates on monitors in high-traffic areas, allowing staff to track patient status and procedures quickly. The semiconductor industry has also modified Hubble’s scheduling software to handle changes in customer demand and to streamline production.

A computer screen showing a schedule.
Hospital scheduling software helps handle dynamic rescheduling issues by allocating resources and managing disruptions in real time.
Allocade, Inc.

Amateur Astronomy

Hubble Database Guides Telescopes on the Ground

A database of 19 million astronomical objects compiled for Hubble was incorporated into astronomy software that let amateur and professional astronomers quickly plot Hubble data in an electronic sky map.

The software also helped observers operate ground-based telescopes remotely via the Internet, which opened up observing opportunities for both professional astronomers and students. Using this software, the NASA-funded Telescopes in Education program allowed students around the world to observe objects in Hubble’s astronomical database using a 24-inch telescope at the Mount Wilson Observatory in California.

A map of the sky on a computer screen, with the horizon at the bottom and some of the Milky Way in the center, with multiple object names on the image. Controls are at the bottom of the screen.
Sky-mapping software helps observers aim telescopes at celestial targets.
Software Bisque