Hubble space telescope celebrates 20 years of awe and astonishing discoveries

24 Apr 2010, Comments: | Views: 1507 | | Category: Science

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 This video shows a three-dimensional trip into a giant "mountain" of cool hydrogen and dust in the Carina Nebula, a vast star-forming region in our Milky Way Galaxy. The nebula is too far away for Hubble Space Telescope to see in true three dimensions. But this visualization creates foreground and background elements based on an approximation of how the region might be distributed in a 3-D volume. A virtual camera flies through this synthesized space to create a 3-D effect. 

Happy Birthday Hubble

Space shuttle Discovery roared into orbit April 24, 1990, with a most precious cargo, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. In the two decades since, teams of astronauts working from other shuttles repaired the orbiting eye on the universe and extended its abilities far beyond what was thought possible for longer than many thought realistic.

Hubble, named for groundbreaking astronomer Edwin Hubble, repaid the commitment with some of the most dazzling images the world has seen, along with fresh data that answered a wealth of questions and led to many new ones. The telescope's observations allowed astronomers to set the age of the universe at about 13.7 billion years with a high degree of certainty.

These two images of a three-light-year-high pillar of star birth demonstrate how observations taken in visible and infrared light by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope reveal dramatically different and complementary views of an object. Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Livio and the Hubble 20th Anniversary Team (STScI)

"I never believed in 1990 that the Hubble would end up this great," said Ed Weiler, NASA associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate and chief scientist for the Hubble program when it launched. "It's changed a lot of thinking and it's changed a lot of what I learned 30 years ago in grad school."

Hubble's discoveries stretch over most aspects of astronomy, but its highlights include proving massive black holes exist and defining the age of the universe. It also proved the existence of something no one has seen -- dark energy.

"Nobody ever knew it existed before Hubble," said Jon Grunsfeld, an astronaut and astronomer who worked on Hubble during two shuttle missions.

The telescope's most unique element, though, is its orbit -- a perch so high above the planet that its pictures are not warped or distorted by the air currents, moisture and other effects from Earth's atmosphere.

"It's that extreme clarity that gives us the feeling we've traveled out into space to see these objects," Grunsfeld said. "It really is our time machine."

Despite its storied past, Hubble had looked set for the junk heap until the space shuttle Atlantis’ repair mission that sought to extend the telescope’s life until at least 2014, and possibly beyond.

  NASA had originally decided against the maintenance mission because of the risks involved and pressures to complete International Space Station construction by the end of 2010, when the shuttle is to be retired.

But US politicians and world astronomers fought to keep alive the instrument that has expanded knowledge of space. Astronomers were not the only ones pleased with the life extension. The 12 1/2-ton space telescope reached into the mind and spirit of the general public in an unprecedented way (in US) . Images from the telescope have made their way onto stamps, album covers and even into art exhibits.

“Most of us humans ... will never travel physically to some of the exotic places that we see in Hubble,” said Ed Weiler, NASA associate administrator, earlier this year. “What Hubble has done is enabled our hearts, our minds, our spirits to travel throughout the solar system even billions of light years to the very beginning of time.” Hubble fans worldwide are being nvited to share the ways the telescope has affected them — they can visit the “Messages to Hubble” page on The messages will be stored in the Hubble data archive along with the telescope’s many terabytes of science data.

More Videos on Hubble


  Hubble: Two Decades of Discovery (1990-2010)

Top astronomers who have worked on the Hubble Space Telescope over the past 20 years talk about their major discoveries that were made possible only with a spaceborne observatory. The 12-minute look at Hubble's top findings includes: galaxy evolution, dark matter, the age of the universe, black holes, extrasolar planets, and dark energy.

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