With upgrade, Hubble offers new glimpse of space
May 12, 1997
Web posted at: 7:34 p.m. EDT (2334 GMT)
(CNN) -- The birth and death of stars, and new evidence of super-massive black holes, were among the phenomenon captured in the first pictures provided Monday by the newly upgraded Hubble Space Telescope.
Space-walking shuttle astronauts installed the new equipment during a service call three months ago, and scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration offered a progress report on how the orbiting telescope is faring.
"With these images, we are lifting the dusty veil of
secrecy from star birth and star death," said Rodger Thompson, chief scientist for the newly installed Near-Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS).
"NICMOS has expanded Hubble's range of vision into the near infrared," said project scientist David Leckrone, "and has expanded the clarity with which we can see the universe into places that we couldn't see before, into dusty regions housing newborn stars and housing stars going through ... their death throes."
For example, with the Orion nebula, NICMOS reveals features that couldn't be seen before in a region where new stars are coming into existence.
NICMOS offers similar detail of the Egg nebula, a
dust-and-gas cloud about 3,000 light-years (18 quadrillion
miles) from Earth, where a star is blasting twin jets of gas and dust into space as it dies.
One camera out of focus
But NICMOS isn't running at full power, as one of its three cameras is out of commission.
Camera Three developed distorted vision soon after its
February installation when a block of super-cold nitrogen, which was meant to cool the instrument over its four-and-a-half-year life span, thawed faster than expected.
Now the scientists believe the instrument may function as
briefly as 18 months to two years and so they plan to increase the percentage of time NICMOS is used.
Ed Weiler, Hubble's chief astronomer, said that the camera
has been correcting its focus slowly and irregularly over the
last weeks and may eventually focus as originally intended.
Astronomers will check it again in about six months, he said.
Even if it never works properly, it only accounts for 6 percent of Hubble's scientific operations, he said.
Spotting black holes
Another new instrument is giving insight into super-massive black holes, regions in space with such a strong gravitational pull that nothing -- not even light -- escapes.
The Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, or STIS for short, found evidence of a black hole at least 300 million times the mass of Earth's Sun, in a galaxy called M84, 50 million light years away.
STIS looks at objects through a narrow slit that blocks out competing light and reveals a disk of gas orbiting the black hole.
It took the instrument only 20 minutes to do what used to take hours.
"STIS has made it look easy to do something that was previously ... possible but very taxing for Hubble to do, and that is to relatively routinely and easily detect a super-massive black hole in the nuclear of galaxies," Leckrone said.
STIS also provided a new way to analyze the rings of a giant supernova, or dying star, called 1987A, and to study its geometry.
NASA officials estimate Hubble, launched in 1990, has cost $3 billion between 1979-1997. "That works out to be about 2 cents per week per American," Weiler said.
Correspondent Ann Kellan and Reuters contributed to this report.
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