Hubble Celebrates 20 Years of Shock and Awe
NASA’s best-recognized, longest-lived, and most prolific space observatory zooms past a threshold of 20 years of operation this month. On April 24, 1990, the space shuttle and crew of STS-31 were launched to deploy the Hubble Space Telescope into a low Earth orbit. What followed was one of the most remarkable sagas of the space age. Hubble’s unprecedented capabilities made it one of the most powerful science instruments ever conceived by humans, and certainly the one most embraced by the public. Hubble discoveries revolutionized nearly all areas of current astronomical research, from planetary science to cosmology. And, its pictures were unmistakably out of this world.
At times Hubble’s starry odyssey played out like a space soap opera, with broken equipment, a bleary-eyed primary mirror, and even a space shuttle rescue/repair mission cancellation. But the ingenuity and dedication of Hubble scientists, engineers, and NASA astronauts have allowed the observatory to rebound time and time again. Its crisp vision continues to challenge scientists with exciting new surprises and to enthrall the public with ever more evocative color images.
NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) are celebrating Hubble’s journey of exploration with a stunning new picture, online educational activities, an opportunity for people to explore galaxies as armchair scientists, and an opportunity for astronomy enthusiasts to send in their own personal greetings to Hubble for posterity.
NASA is releasing today a brand new Hubble photo of a small portion of one of the largest seen star-birth regions in the galaxy, the Carina Nebula. Towers of cool hydrogen laced with dust rise from the wall of the nebula. The scene is reminiscent of Hubble’s classic “Pillars of Creation” photo from 1995, but is even more striking in appearance. The image captures the top of a three-light-year-tall pillar of gas and dust that is being eaten away by the brilliant light from nearby bright stars. The pillar is also being pushed apart from within, as infant stars buried inside it fire off jets of gas that can be seen streaming from towering peaks like arrows sailing through the air.
Hubble fans worldwide are being invited to share the ways the telescope has affected them. They can send an e-mail, post a Facebook message, use the Twitter hashtag #hst20, or send a cell phone text message. Or, they can visit the “Messages to Hubble” page on http://hubblesite.org, type in their entry, and read selections from other messages that have been received. Fan messages will be stored in the Hubble data archive along with the telescope’s many terabytes of science data. Someday, future researchers will be able to read these messages and understand how Hubble had such an impact on the world.
The public will also have an opportunity to be at-home scientists by helping astronomers sort out the thousands of galaxies seen in a deep Hubble observation. STScI is partnering with the Galaxy Zoo consortium of scientists to launch an Internet-based astronomy project (http://hubble.galaxyzoo.org) where amateur astronomers can peruse and sort galaxies from Hubble’s deepest view of the universe into their classic shapes: spiral, elliptical, and irregular. Dividing the galaxies into categories will allow astronomers to study how they relate to one another and provide clues that might help scientists understand how they formed.
For students, STScI is opening an education portal called “Celebrating Hubble’s 20th Anniversary” (http://amazing-space.stsci.edu/hubble_20/). It offers links to “fun facts” and trivia about Hubble, a news story that chronicles the Earth-orbiting observatory’s life and discoveries, and the IMAX “Hubble 3D” educator guide. An anniversary poster containing Hubble’s “hall-of-fame” images, including the Eagle Nebula and Saturn, is also being offered with downloadable classroom activity information.
To date, Hubble has looked at over 30,000 celestial objects and amassed over one-half million pictures in its archive. The last heroic astronaut servicing mission to Hubble in May 2009 made it 100 times more powerful than when it was launched. In addition to its irreplaceable scientific importance, Hubble brings cosmic wonders into millions of homes and schools every day. For the past 20 years the public has become co-explorers with this wondrous observatory.
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