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.