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The Hubble Space Telescope’s Latest Findings

The Hubble Space Telescope is one of those engineering marvels that have been in service far longer than originally anticipated. Launched on April 24, 1990, the telescope was originally meant to operate for fifteen years. Now, after thirty years in space, five servicing missions by astronauts, and over a million images captured, the Hubble Telescope continues to zoom in on the night sky with its 7.8-foot-wide eye. 

Hubble photographed leaving the space shuttle Discovery on April 25, 1990.

Able to capture 40,000 times more light than the human eye, Hubble could see the miniscule lights of an airplane above San Francisco from Washington, D.C. But Hubble doesn’t observe Earth at all—its instruments capture light for a minimum of 0.1 seconds, during which time it would move almost half a mile while taking a picture of Earth. Instead, the telescope directs its sensors into supermassive black holes at the hearts of distant, whirling galaxies.

Below is an example of Hubble’s stunningly detailed reconstructions of a spiral galaxy—this one of NGC 1097, floating 48 million light-years from Earth. Stars, planetary systems, and vast tendrils of dark red dust are pulled in a whorl about the galaxy’s center, where a supermassive black hole hides amid the radiance. 

Color is added to this originally black-and-white image through the use of filters, which allow only certain wavelengths of light to pass through them. For example, one filter used in this image admitted waves of green light about 555 nanometers long. Six other filters were used during processing of this image, when astronomers added color to enhance details and interpret results. The final product is a realistic, beautiful depiction of a galaxy wreathed in stardust. 

Two cameras took this photo—the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) and the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3), which is an upgraded descendant of the Wide Field Camera first installed during Hubble’s first servicing mission in 1993. 

Astronauts Jeffrey Hoffman (foreground) and Story Musgrave prepare to install the Wide Field Camera into Hubble’s empty cavity on December 7, 1993.

In the premiere servicing mission, two teams of astronauts spent more than 35 hours spacewalking in a record of five back-to-back spacewalks. One of these teams is seen above preparing to install the Wide Field Camera. 

The Wide Field Camera 3 was not installed until the fourth servicing mission in 2009. Recently, WFC3 also helped shed light on another distant galaxy, NGC 7172. 

From the angle at which Hubble captured the image below, NGC 7172 seems like a normal spiral galaxy viewed from the side. But at the heart of the galaxy is an “intensely luminous” core, where matter is being pulled onto a supermassive black hole. 

This glowing, secret core is hidden by the tendrils of dust snaking their way across the image. However, astronomers inspecting the galaxy across the electromagnetic spectrum were able to classify the galaxy as a Seyfert, flooded with light from its burning, active heart. Seyfert galaxies  are characterized by such bright, compact centers, called “nuclei,” which emit more radiation than they should. They are thought to be caused by activity near black holes at the center. 

This is not the most fantastic of Hubble’s recent discoveries. Whether Seyfert or not, these galaxies are mysterious, even majestic, but in some cases, they can collide with others. The result is a spectacular galactic scene. 

Below, Hubble captured the unusual triangle created by vapor, gravity, and the birth of new stars around two colliding galaxies. 

Arp 143

The dynamic duo, collectively named Arp 143, is locked in a gravitational dance. On the right, NGC 2445 is wreathed in freshly birthed stars pulled into a triangle by the less colorful NGC 2444 on the left. The latter galaxy lost a large amount of gas that NGC 2445 still retains, gas which fuels the blue stars exploding into light and being around it. 

NGC 2444’s gravity is pulling “taffy-like strands of gas” from its counterpart, resulting in the ribbons of stars currently in transit from one galaxy to the other. According to astronomer Julianne Dalcanton, NGC 2444 may also have an invisible halo of hot gas affecting the galaxies’ unusual interaction.

These mysterious nebulae are hundreds of lightyears away, but Hubble supplies us with a world of hidden details to be extracted from grayscale and spectrographic images. While processing and layering data upon data, astronomers sort through high-quality illustrations of the eerie, calm, and beautiful wonders in the cosmos. 

Through it all, Hubble remains a marvel of engineering, orbiting Earth at speeds as breathtaking as the images it captures. Perhaps the Telescope will soon be decommissioned, heralding the end of an era of astronomy that began when the Discovery shuttle first released its package into the darkness above the planet. Whatever happens, Hubble’s long life has ensured that its discoveries will be likened to the galaxies it observes—astronomical.

 

Sources:

Dunbar, B. (n.d.). STS-61. NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/shuttlemissions/archives/sts-61.html.

Garner, R. (2017, December 19). Observatory – optics. NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/hubble-space-telescope-optics-system.  

Gianopoulos, A. (2022, February 18). Galaxy collision creates ‘Space Triangle’ in new Hubble Image. NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/goddard/2022/galaxy-collision-creates-space-triangle-in-new-hubble-image

Gianopoulos, A. (2022, March 17). Hubble sees the eye of a colorful galaxy. NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/goddard/2002/hubble-sees-the-eye-of-a-colorful-galaxy.  

Gianopoulos, A. (2022, March 31). Hubble views a galaxy with an active Black Hole. NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/goddard/2022/hubble-views-a-galaxy-with-an-active-black-hole

Herridge, L. (2020, April 24). Celebrating hubble space telescope’s 30 years in service. NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/feature/celebrating-hubble-space-telescopes-30-years-in-service

Hodge, P. W. (2018, January 9). Seyfert galaxy. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/science/Seyfert-galaxy

NASA. (n.d.). All quick facts. HubbleSite.org. https://hubblesite.org/quick-facts/all-quick-facts.  

NASA. (n.d.). Servicing missions. HubbleSite.org. https://hubblesite.org/mission-and-telescope/servicing-missions

Seyfert galaxy. Oxford Reference. (n.d.). https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100458314

Images accredited to NASA.

3 Comments

  1. wow amazing!

  2. Elizabeth Nelson

    Amazing pictures! Great job!

  3. Elizabeth Nelson

    The third picture looks like a human eye of stars!