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Hubble Space Telescope’s New Classic

This past Saturday, April 24, marked 20 years since the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope aboard the space shuttle Discovery.

Hubble was released into orbit the following day, but it wasn’t until May that astronomers got a look at the first pictures from their shiny new observatory.

The scientists—and eager members of the public whose tax dollars had paid for Hubble—were in for a shock, and not in a good way.

This, for example, is a picture of the spiral galaxy M100 as Hubble first saw it:

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oh, noes!

A defect in the telescope’s primary mirror meant that Hubble was effectively nearsighted, and it was returning blurry pictures that were not much better than what ground-based observatories could produce at the time.

It wasn’t until a servicing mission could be launched three years later that specialists were able to correct the problem, giving Hubble “contact lenses” and sharpening the ‘scope’s vision into practical perfection:

hubble-better-m100.jpg

Ah, much better!

Various replacements and upgrades since that 1994 tuneup have given us the more than 570,000 stunning Hubble images we’ve come to know and love, along with the 45 terabytes of data that astronomers have been using to unravel great mysteries of the universe.

The final shuttle mission to Hubble in 2009 boosted the telescope’s power even more, replacing the old contact lenses with new instruments that are giving Hubble unprecedented views of cosmic objects.

In the latest example of Hubble’s secondary career inspiring blacklight posters, the telescope took a ride on a magic mountain:

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This newly released “20th birthday” picture shows a towering peak of gas and dust deep inside the Carina nebula, a star-forming region about 7,500 light-years away.

The image is colored in a Disney-esque palette thanks to combined data from various visible and infrared light filters on Hubble’s new(ish) Wide Field Camera 3: Oxygen glows blue, hydrogen and nitrogen add green, and sulfur mixes in some red.

The entire nebula is being sculpted from the inside by intense radiation and stellar wind (really streams of charged particles) generated by newborn stars.

Like the Pillars of Creation, made famous by a 1995 Hubble shot, the Mystic Mountain is a region of material dense enough to resist this stellar erosion, although in some places streamers of hot gas are being blown off the column like sand whipping from a U.S. Southwest butte.

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The strange “antenna” at the mountain’s peak is hiding a newborn star, which is blasting out a 3.5-trillion-mile-long (5.6-trillion-kilometer-long) jet horizontal to the pillar’s tip. To the left that jet is creating a visible bow shock.

Remove all but the near-infrared wavelengths from the frame, and the Mystic Mountain fades into ghostly form, revealing the myriad young stars in Carina’s heart:

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Yes, El Guapo, I would say you have a plethora of stars for your birthday …

Of course, Hubble has been about way more than pretty pictures during it’s two decades on the job.

When you’re done gawking at Hubble’s newest classic, check out the space telescope’s major scientific finds, as told by the astronomers involved:

—Images courtesy NASA, ESA, and M. Livio and the Hubble 20th Anniversary Team (STScI)