Hubble Space Telescope Celebrates 15th Anniversary
NASA — When NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990, astronomers anticipated great discoveries, ranging from finding black holes to looking back billions of years toward the beginning of time.
Now, 15 years later, the versatile telescope continues to deliver exciting new science, including helping to prove the existence of dark energy, tracing enigmatic gamma-ray bursts to distant galaxies, and sampling the atmospheres of far-flung planets. To celebrate Hubble’s 15th anniversary, new breathtaking images will be released of a majestic spiral galaxy teeming with newborn stars and an eerie-looking spire of gas and dust.
The new image of the well-known spiral galaxy M51 (known as the Whirlpool Galaxy), showcases a spiral galaxy’s classic features, from its curving arms, where newborn stars reside, to its yellowish central core, a home for older stars.
A feature of considerable added interest is the companion galaxy located at the end of one of the spiral arms. The new photograph of the Eagle Nebula shows a tall, dense tower of gas that is being sculpted by ultraviolet light from a group of massive, hot stars.
The pictures are among the largest and sharpest views taken by Hubble. The images, taken by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys, are 20 times larger than a photograph taken by a typical digital camera. The new images are so sharp that they could be enlarged to billboard size and still retain the stunning details.
Mural-sized images of both celestial objects will be unveiled at 100 museums, planetariums, and science centers across the country, from Guam to Maine. The 4-foot-by-6-foot image of M51 and the 3-foot-by-6-foot photograph of the Eagle Nebula will be on display at all the sites. A list of these sites is available on http://hubblesite.org/about_us/unveiling.shtml.
Views of M51 and the Eagle Nebula (seen here) along with more than 1,000 other glorious Hubble images, can be savored from the comfort of your home. If you want some Hubble pictures to hang in your home, then go to “Astronomy Print Shop” at the Hubble Site.
Choose from a list of Hubble images that are specially formatted for printing. Select the image, the size you want (from 4 inches by 6 inches to 16 inches by 20 inches), and download it. Then take it to your favorite print shop to make a copy suitable for framing.
Looking for information about Hubble and its discoveries that is written for children? Then go to the Amazing Space education website at http://amazing-space.stsci.edu/. Children can read a story tailored just for them on Hubble’s 15th anniversary, entitled “Hubble’s Picture Book of the Universe.”
The story is under “The Star Witness,” a section of the website offering Hubble news written for children. Children also can take a journey through the eras of telescope history by going to Amazing Space’s “Online Explorations” and clicking on “Telescopes from the Ground Up.” This newest addition to Amazing Space traces the fascinating history of telescope evolution from the technological advancements to the people who made the telescopes.
Hubble was placed into Earth-orbit on April 25, 1990. For the first time, a large telescope that sees in visible light began orbiting above Earth’s distorting atmosphere, which blurs starlight and makes images appear fuzzy. Astronomers anticipated great discoveries from Hubble.
The telescope has delivered as promised and continues serving up new discoveries. During its 15 years of viewing the universe, the telescope has taken more than 700,000 snapshots of celestial objects such as galaxies, dying stars, and giant gas clouds, the birthplace of stars. Astronomers are looking forward to more great discoveries by Hubble.
Image 1: The Whirlpool Galaxy — The graceful, winding arms of the majestic spiral galaxy M51 (NGC 5194) appear like a grand spiral staircase sweeping through space. They are actually long lanes of stars and gas laced with dust.
This sharpest-ever image of the Whirlpool Galaxy, taken in January 2005 with the Advanced Camera for Surveys aboard NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, illustrates a spiral galaxy’s grand design, from its curving spiral arms, where young stars reside, to its yellowish central core, a home of older stars. The galaxy is nicknamed the Whirlpool because of its swirling structure.
The Whirlpool’s most striking feature is its two curving arms, a hallmark of so-called grand-design spiral galaxies. Many spiral galaxies possess numerous, loosely shaped arms which make their spiral structure less pronounced. These arms serve an important purpose in spiral galaxies. They are star-formation factories, compressing hydrogen gas and creating clusters of new stars. In the Whirlpool, the assembly line begins with the dark clouds of gas on the inner edge, then moves to bright pink star-forming regions, and ends with the brilliant blue star clusters along the outer edge.
Some astronomers believe that the Whirlpool’s arms are so prominent because of the effects of a close encounter with NGC 5195, the small, yellowish galaxy at the outermost tip of one of the Whirlpool’s arms. At first glance, the compact galaxy appears to be tugging on the arm. Hubble’s clear view, however, shows that NGC 5195 is passing behind the Whirlpool. The small galaxy has been gliding past the Whirlpool for hundreds of millions of years.
As NGC 5195 drifts by, its gravitational muscle pumps up waves within the Whirlpool’s pancake-shaped disk. The waves are like ripples in a pond generated when a rock is thrown in the water. When the waves pass through orbiting gas clouds within the disk, they squeeze the gaseous material along each arm’s inner edge. The dark dusty material looks like gathering storm clouds. These dense clouds collapse, creating a wake of star birth, as seen in the bright pink star-forming regions. The largest stars eventually sweep away the dusty cocoons with a torrent of radiation, hurricane-like stellar winds, and shock waves from supernova blasts. Bright blue star clusters emerge from the mayhem, illuminating the Whirlpool’s arms like city streetlights.
The Whirlpool is one of astronomy’s galactic darlings. Located 31 million light-years away in the constellation Canes Venatici (the Hunting Dogs), the Whirlpool’s beautiful face-on view and closeness to Earth allow astronomers to study a classic spiral galaxy’s structure and star-forming processes.
Image 2: The Eagle Nebula — Appearing like a winged fairy-tale creature poised on a pedestal, this object is actually a billowing tower of cold gas and dust rising from a stellar nursery called the Eagle Nebula. The soaring tower is 9.5 light-years or about 57 trillion miles high, about twice the distance from our Sun to the next nearest star.
Stars in the Eagle Nebula are born in clouds of cold hydrogen gas that reside in chaotic neighborhoods, where energy from young stars sculpts fantasy-like landscapes in the gas. The tower may be a giant incubator for those newborn stars. A torrent of ultraviolet light from a band of massive, hot, young stars [off the top of the image] is eroding the pillar.
The starlight also is responsible for illuminating the tower’s rough surface. Ghostly streamers of gas can be seen boiling off this surface, creating the haze around the structure and highlighting its three-dimensional shape. The column is silhouetted against the background glow of more distant gas.
The edge of the dark hydrogen cloud at the top of the tower is resisting erosion, in a manner similar to that of brush among a field of prairie grass that is being swept up by fire. The fire quickly burns the grass but slows down when it encounters the dense brush. In this celestial case, thick clouds of hydrogen gas and dust have survived longer than their surroundings in the face of a blast of ultraviolet light from the hot, young stars.
Inside the gaseous tower, stars may be forming. Some of those stars may have been created by dense gas collapsing under gravity. Other stars may be forming due to pressure from gas that has been heated by the neighboring hot stars.
The first wave of stars may have started forming before the massive star cluster began venting its scorching light. The star birth may have begun when denser regions of cold gas within the tower started collapsing under their own weight to make stars.
The bumps and fingers of material in the center of the tower are examples of these stellar birthing areas. These regions may look small but they are roughly the size of our solar system. The fledgling stars continued to grow as they fed off the surrounding gas cloud. They abruptly stopped growing when light from the star cluster uncovered their gaseous cradles, separating them from their gas supply.
Ironically, the young cluster’s intense starlight may be inducing star formation in some regions of the tower. Examples can be seen in the large, glowing clumps and finger-shaped protrusions at the top of the structure. The stars may be heating the gas at the top of the tower and creating a shock front, as seen by the bright rim of material tracing the edge of the nebula at top, left. As the heated gas expands, it acts like a battering ram, pushing against the darker cold gas. The intense pressure compresses the gas, making it easier for stars to form. This scenario may continue as the shock front moves slowly down the tower.
The dominant colors in the image were produced by gas energized by the star cluster’s powerful ultraviolet light. The blue color at the top is from glowing oxygen. The red color in the lower region is from glowing hydrogen. The Eagle Nebula image was taken in November 2004 with the Advanced Camera for Surveys aboard NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.
Hubble Minute: 15 Years of Images from Hubble Space Telescope — 15th anniversary Hubble Minute on the top science discoveries of the Hubble Space Telescope. Images cover planets, comets, stars, galaxies and almost back to the beginning of time. The story leads up to Hubble’s largest images ever revealed.
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