Where there is an observatory and a telescope, we expect that any eyes will see new worlds at once. -Henry D. Thoreau

20 years ago tomorrow, the Hubble Space Telescope was launched into orbit.

It doesn’t look that impressive, and maybe it shouldn’t. After all, what is a space telescope? It’s a couple of mirrors, a camera, some stabilizing gyroscopes, some electronics and an antenna, all wrapped in a reflective coating and powered by some solar panels. Doesn’t sound so hard, does it?

But Hubble has vastly increased our understanding of the Universe, and I’d like to share with you some of the highest highlights of what we’ve found with it. (And feel free to share your favorite bits in the comments.)

1.) SN 1987a. In 1987, a supernova went off in the Large Magellanic Cloud. As far as we can tell, that’s the closest supernova to us since 1604! The image above is what that supernova remnant looks like as of 2007, the most spectacular image of a recent supernova ever taken!

2.) Planetary Nebulae. When our Sun dies, it’s going to blow off its outer layers of gas and collapse into a white dwarf. Thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope, we have unprecedented pictures of what these planetary nebulae look like. Some are asymmetric, such as NGC 2818 (above), while others are almost perfectly spherical, like the Ring Nebula (below).

There are even other cases too, like the famous Cat’s Eye Nebula (below), which is maybe the most spectacular one to my eye.

But out beyond single stars, Hubble has taken fabulous looks at clusters of stars! These come in two different major types.

3.) Open Star Clusters. These are regions of space where thousands of stars have formed recently, and Hubble is amazing for photographing these regions. Above is NGC 3603, and if it doesn’t make your jaw drop now, try clicking on it. Just try and not be awed; I dare you. But there’s another type of cluster of stars out there…

4.) Globular Clusters. Collections of hundreds of thousands to even millions of stars over just a few light years, these objects — many of which are found in our own galaxy — are the densest collections of stars that we know of. And Hubble, rather than showing us a faint fuzzy blob, can resolve individual stars of different colors at the hearts of these clusters, like Omega Centauri, above. (Again, if you don’t think this is impressive, try clicking on it.) But not everything that Hubble does lives in or near the Milky Way…

5.) Other spiral galaxies! Whether it’s an edge-on spiral like the Sombrero Galaxy (above) or a face-on spiral like the Whirlpool Galaxy (below), there are few sights as beautiful as a few hundred billion stars collected in one image like these, and Hubble continues to bring them to us like no other telescope/camera combo can.

(Again, click for the big, huge, hi-res images.)

But not all galaxies are spirals. Hubble has photographed elliptical galaxies, irregular galaxies, but my rare favorite non-spiral?

6.) Ring galaxies. Take a look at the bizarre beauty of Ring Galaxy AM 0644-741 (above). But what really strikes me about this image is something you won’t notice at first glance… what happens if you take a look at the lower left portion of this image? The part, I mean, that doesn’t even include this Ring Galaxy?

7.) New, faint, super-distant galaxies! That’s right, Hubble’s “eye” is so powerful that it finds the faintest, most distant galaxies that we’ve ever discovered! In fact, this brings us to my favorite image of all-time.

What would happen if you took a completely blank patch of sky? No known stars, no known galaxies, nothing at all? What would happen if you just pointed your space telescope at it and left the shutter open on the camera? Hour after hours, day after day, just sitting there, collecting photons one at a time? What would you see?

Nothing? Something? Anything? Hubble did that, and it saw this.

8.) The Hubble Deep Field. Thousands and thousands of galaxies. From hundreds of millions to billions of light years away. You think it’s just a bunch of dots? Try clicking on it; each “dot” is its own galaxy! In fact, after they switched out the camera that took this for a better one, they too an even better one: the Hubble Ultra Deep Field!

And that’s what our Universe looks like, from individual stars up to the most distant galaxies ever seen, all through the eye of this one magnificent telescope.

So thank you, Hubble, for 20 years of simply fantastic awesome service. And make no mistake about it, I know you’re not even close to finished yet. Keep it up, and I’ll keep on thinking of you. Happy Birthday.

Comments

  1. #1 Li'l Innocent
    April 23, 2010

    Thanks for this, Ethan. All incredible – but those deep field photos, wow, wow, wow…
    I’m among the layest of laypeople, though I enjoy reading about history of science, etc. An astronomical topic I haven’t seen much discussed is the influence of Earth’s giant moon on terrestrial geologic and biological development and history – a pretty important subject, since the Moon’s size seems to be anomalous among planetary satellites as far as we know now. Possible influences ranging from that of lunar gravitation on Earth’s internal activity, continental drift, etc., to that of apparent size/solar eclipses on human intellectual development come to mind – - and then I find myself wondering whether there would be any complex life or sentient species here if it weren’t for the accident of a huge satellite.

    But looking at ALL those galaxies, I find it easier to imagine that there must be or have been other systems where other civilizations (however defined) arose. The variables, the possibilities, are so immense.

    (As a pro, please excuse the evidences of ignorance in the above!)

  2. #2 NewEnglandBob
    April 23, 2010

    Thanks Ethan and thank you Hubble and NASA.

    Jaw dropping and awe inspiring.

  3. #3 Sphere Coupler
    April 23, 2010

    The Hubble Ultra Deep Field…cool, *kinda makes me home sick*.

    Most likely the best money ever spent.

    Thanks, to all those who brought us an excellent new view.

    How many more years of service is possible?

  4. #4 Waydude
    April 23, 2010

    The Hubble deep field, when it came out, just blew my mind. It still does every time I see it. It is probably the single most humbling photo in history. You would think if every person on this planet looked at it, our petty differences would dry up and blow away, but no, alas….

  5. #5 Brian
    April 23, 2010

    I remember very well the horror many of felt after Hubble launched and it was revealed that there was a flaw in the main mirror. The difficulties involved in fixing it, I feared, would be enough for Congress to just write off the main telescope entirely. I was so glad to be proven wrong, and indeed Hubble has repaid its cost to us many times over.

  6. #6 Robbie
    April 24, 2010

    So, which one is the Star Wars Galaxy? lol

  7. #7 Michel
    April 24, 2010

    Many more years to you Hubble!

  8. #8 Rob
    April 24, 2010

    Wow, to say we are insignificant is really an understatement!

  9. #9 Duncan Ivry
    April 24, 2010

    Ethan: “It” — the Hubble Space Telescope — “doesn’t look that impressive”

    I disagree: the Hubble Space Telescope looks *very* impressive.

  10. #10 Richard
    April 25, 2010

    Thanks. It makes me think of Ellie’s line in Carl Sagan’s “Contact” (referring to her inter-stellar journey), “They should have sent a poet.” Here’s one (a song by Mary McCaslin):

    The astronomer has even gone to bed –
    the stars and distances grow dim inside his head;
    and, just like me, he doesn’t care too much –
    he’s tired of looking at those stars he cannot touch…

    I’ll never get tired of it, but there’s a kind of existential longing that will not be satisfied. The only thing worse would be to not live with such longing.

  11. #11 Hakim Rushdan
    April 25, 2010

    These images are so awe inspiring and they really expand your mind so that we may take another look at who we are, where we may have come from and why are we here? It helps us to see our smallness and at the same time how our minds can be expanded to take this all in. Thanks for sharing and thanks to Nasa and Hubble for making it possible.

  12. #12 crd2
    April 25, 2010

    When i let my eyes wander the ultra deep field image, I know most people spend time looking at the larger more detailed galaxies. Me, I cant stop starting at the minute ones no larger then the peroid on this sentence. If only we could view those in greater detail. What could they teach us? It really puts our planet into perspective in regards to the rest of the universe and how minute we truly are in the grand scheme of things. What a beautiful place we exist in. How fortunate we are to have been born at a time in history where we are able understand and view the outer edges of the observable universe.

  13. #13 habrow2
    April 25, 2010

    Now where are the parallel universes?

  14. #14 lordaxil
    April 27, 2010

    @habrow2 They’re there – you just have to turn your monitor through 90 degrees to see them.

  15. #15 Henry
    April 29, 2010

    Astronomical photographs are easily my favourite type (other than perhaps attractive women). The Cat’s Eye Nebula has to be my favourite though, I’m made it an avatar.

  16. #16 Bikash Gosai
    May 22, 2010

    It’s really awesome.
    The work which Hubble has done can’t do nothing other devices of this world.We will miss the Hubble Telescope…………………..

  17. #17 george
    December 2, 2010

    i was trippin man!!!!

  18. #18 Manoj
    December 22, 2010

    Thanks for the pictures .. from bottom of my heart..
    I hope the next gen telescope James webb will give us more data to analyze

  19. #19 Thadd
    April 28, 2011

    Wow, God really knows how to create beauty.

  20. #20 iris
    August 24, 2011

    How big is God, how big and wide His vast domain, to try to tell this lips can only start, how big enough to rule this mighty universe…but small enough to live within my heart. Thanks Ethan for sharing these and thanks Hubble!

  21. #21 carlos lindberg benicio dos santos
    Brasil
    June 17, 2013

    Well, it seems god is kind of a magician to have created all that in just six days. Or is it a lie? So a book which intends to be a moral guide to mankind should not contain lies. So…….