Photo in the News: Hubble Fans Dispute "Sharpest" Title

Cat's Eye Nebula pictures
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September 10, 2007—It's a battle to determine the sharpest shooter, and naming a winner might hinge on which contestant is the last one standing.

Last week astronomers at the University of Cambridge in England and the California Institute of Technology announced that they had used a new spin on an old technique called "lucky imaging" to create the most detailed images of stars and nebulae ever produced—and they did it with a ground-based telescope.

Their "lucky" shot (left) of the Cat's Eye Nebula, for instance, was billed as being twice as fine as Hubble's while being made for a fraction of the cost. But does the comparison hold true?

"Just line up the pictures, and you be the judge," Ray Villard, a spokesperson for the Space Telescope Science Institute, told MSNBC. The institute shares responsibility for Hubble's science missions with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

In Villard's eye, the Hubble version (right) wins hands down.

The importance of the lucky imaging achievement is not that it's a death knell for Hubble, but that it demonstrates the various layers of data different imaging techniques can produce, Cambridge's Craig Mackay told MSNBC.

Hubble is still the better instrument for wide views of nebula and galaxies, the experts note. But lucky images can offer better resolution than Hubble in a smaller field of view, Mackay said, capturing finely tuned shots of stars only a few light-hours apart.

What's more, as Hubble approaches its 18th year in orbit, it might not be a bad thing for scientists to have options beyond the aging telescope.

This most recent Hubble image of the Cat's Eye was snapped in 2004 by the Advanced Camera for Surveys, a part of the space telescope that broke in January 2007.

And on September 1 one of the instrument's stabilizing gyroscopes failed, adding to worries that Hubble will become hobbled in space before the next and final shuttle mission available to make repairs, which is slated to launch a year from today.

—Victoria Jaggard

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