The Hubble Space Telescope turns 26 this week, and NASA ordered up one heck of a party balloon.
The spectacular image above shows the Bubble Nebula, a rapidly expanding sphere of hot gas and dust floating in space about 8,000 light-years away. This is Hubble’s first picture of the entire nebula, taken to celebrate the anniversary of its launch—the space telescope blasted off aboard the space shuttle Discovery on April 24, 1990.
Hubble is no stranger to this particular space puff. The telescope snapped an image of the Bubble Nebula shortly after launch, but at the time, its camera was experiencing some technical difficulties and the bubble was largely a blur.
A repair mission in 1993 swapped out the first camera for an upgraded version, and Hubble’s later shots captured the nebula in unprecedented detail. Still, the telescope could only see parts of the bubble at a time, because its field of view is relatively small. So, armed with an even more advanced camera installed in 2009, Hubble operators thought it might be nice to really let this bubble shine.
“We always want to have an image that’s visually spectacular” for the birthday release, says Zoltan Levay, the imaging group lead for Hubble at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.
“We hope everybody goes ‘wow!’—I go ‘wow’ when I look at it!”
Astronomers should be especially delighted, because the highly detailed mosaic image will let them study the bubble in all its glory. This should help us better understand how massive stars shape their surroundings with their strong winds of radiation.
The bubble is being blown by a bright star, visible left of center in this image. That star is between 10 and 20 times the mass of our sun, and it’s churning out a powerful wind of high-energy particles. Because the star lives inside a dense cloud of gas and dust, that wind sculpts its surroundings, heating up the material and causing it to glow in vibrant colors.
One of the great scientific benefits of this image is that Hubble has a long history studying the object, Levay says. By all accounts, the bubble should be expanding at a whopping 62,000 miles an hour (100,000 kilometers an hour).
But the bubble is so huge and distant that it’s hard to spot any changes except over long time scales. Now, with roughly 20 years of pictures to scan, there’s the possibility of actually seeing the bubble in motion.
Hubble fans can celebrate even more knowing that at 26, the beloved telescope is still at its peak. Levay says the instruments should be in fine shape for several years to come, so we should expect even more jaw-dropping visuals.