for National Geographic News
NASA and the European Space Agency celebrated the Hubble Space Telescope's 15th birthday today, releasing new images of cosmic phenomena first made famous by the orbiting telescope.
The snapshots are among the largest and sharpest Hubble has ever capturedquite a feat when one considers that the instrument has taken more than 700,000 photos of planets, stars, galaxies, and the interstellar clouds of dust and gas known as nebulae. (See pictures of Hubble's top ten science discoveries.)
"Hubble has done something that I believe it's fair to say no other scientific experiment before it had ever done: It has literally brought the wonders of the universe into the homes of many millions across the globe," said Mario Livio, a senior astrophysicist with the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland. STScI operates Hubble for NASA.
"You see [Hubble] images in every astronomy textbook but also on the covers of magazines and on the cover of a Pearl Jam album," Livio said. "Hubble has crossed the boundaries of science and penetrated into what we call culture."
Today's newly released image of the Eagle Nebula unveils a dramatic, eerie tower of interstellar gas revealed in dark silhouette by ultraviolet light from a nearby group of hot stars.
Hubble scientists also released an image of the Whirlpool Galaxy today. The snapshot reveals graceful, curving arms replete with newborn stars and a yellowish central core where older stars reside.
The image includes a companion galaxy, seen at the end of one spiral arm. The entire assemblage measures 65,000 light-years in diameter and lies about 23 million light-years from Earth.
The shots were taken with Hubble's newest camera, the Advanced Camera for Surveys. The resolution is so high that the images could be enlarged to billboard size without any loss of detail.
Hubble was launched and placed into orbit by the space shuttle Discovery in April 1990. The instrument became the first large, visible-light telescope to operate outside the distortions caused by Earth's atmosphere.
The mission was a long time coming. "You have to realize that the idea of space telescope was proposed way back in the 1940s," said Frank Summers, an astrophysicist in the office of Public Outreach at STScI in Baltimore.
Congressional funding didn't materialize until 1977. By 1985 the telescope was ready for launch, but put on hold after the space shuttle Challenger disaster. "1990 really was the realization of a dream that had been around for 40 years," Summers said.
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