Space and Science

Hubble Space Telescope celebrates 30 years of discoveries and awe-inspiring images

CNN  — 

The Hubble Space Telescope launched 30 years ago on Friday, forever changing the way we see the universe. The telescope’s ethereal, dreamy and almost fantasy-like views of space vistas have inspired people for decades and led to some of the most important astronomical discoveries.

The space observatory and its instruments, an international cooperative effort between NASA and the European Space Agency, captures unprecedented views of stars, galaxies and the distant universe in visible, ultraviolet and near-infrared light. These different wavelengths of light have allowed Hubble to peer into different regions of space that had never been observed before.

It orbits the Earth from a distance of 340 miles, well above the distorting effects of Earth’s atmosphere for observing space both near and far.

“Hubble gave us a new sharp clarity in our view of deep space,” said Jennifer Wiseman, Hubble Senior Project Scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. “And that came about simply because Hubble was placed above the atmosphere of the earth.

“This has given us a new vantage point for viewing everything in the universe from the nearby solar system to distant galaxies and opened our eyes to the richness of the content of the universe and dynamic activity of the universe over time.”

Hubble captured this image of the distant galaxy cluster Abell 370, where several hundred galaxies are pulled together by gravity. They're four billion light-years away, but the streaks in the image belong to asteroids 160 million miles from Earth.

The telescope was named for pioneering astronomer Edwin Hubble, who discovered in the 1920s that distant clouds in the universe were actually galaxies. (He died in 1953.) Hubble relied on the work of astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt’s discovery of the periods of brightness in pulsating stars called Cepheid variables.

Hubble’s work led to the revelation that our galaxy was one of many, forever changing our perspective and place in the universe. Hubble continued his work and discovered that distant galaxies appeared to be moving rapidly, suggesting that we live in an expanding universe that started with a big bang.

“One of the main reasons for building Hubble was to be able to measure more precisely the expansion rate of the universe,” Wiseman said.

This new Hubble image of a giant red nebula and smaller blue neighbor nebula has been released to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the telescope.

“By Hubble’s ability to observe activity in distant and faint galaxies, we’ve been able to measure that expansion rate. We’re still refining it. In recent years, Hubble, along with others observatories, was a major contributor to the discovery that this expansion rate is accelerating and that was a surprise. We now call the phenom behind this dark energy.”

This detection of the universe’s expansion rate helped lead to the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, awarded to Saul Perlmutter, Brian P. Schmidt and Adam G. Riess “for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe through observations of distant supernovae.”

Over 30 years, Hubble has enabled astronomers around the world to study black holes, mysterious dark energy, distant galaxies and galactic mergers. It has observed planets outside of our solar system and where they form around stars, star formation and death, and it’s even spotted previously unknown moons around Pluto.

Hubble has characterized the atmospheres of exoplanets and spotted weather shifts on planets in our own solar system. And it’s looked across 97% of the universe, effectively peering back in time.

The telescope was expected to last for 15 years, and it’s still going strong. But Hubble was also designed to be serviced and upgraded over time.

Between December 1993 and May 2009, astronauts launched on the space shuttle and rendezvoused with the telescope to make repairs and replace gyroscopes and instruments. The first one, in 1993, helped fix Hubble’s infamous mirror flaw that was causing blurry images to be returned by the telescope. Astronauts installed corrective optics and new instruments to fix it.

Each mission, which took years of planning and preparation, required the astronauts to leave the shuttle and conduct spacewalks to and inside a component of the telescope for repairs and installing instruments. All while the telescope moved at 17,000 miles per hour at an inclined 28.5 degrees to the equator around the Earth.

“It shows me how all of us can all work together to make something fantastically successful and gratifying for humankind,” Wiseman said. She has worked on Hubble in various roles for 20 years.

Discoveries, expected and unexpected

In 1994, Hubble had the chance to watch a violent event in our solar system.

The Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 was unexpectedly drawn into a collision with Jupiter, and the comet was pulled apart into fragments. Astronomers saw 21 pieces of the comet hit Jupiter, leaving temporary black scars within the planet’s iconic clouds. They had never seen anything like it before.

“This was an astounding realization that solar system bodies can interact in very energetic ways and that maybe our solar system isn’t a completely safe place to be,” Wiseman said.

“Since then, Hubble has given us a dramatic show of how planets in our solar system have weather changes, how asteroids can actually collide with each other, how moons of planets in our solar system can show activity and signs of water and basically how our solar system might in fact compare to other star systems.”

Hubble also spotted four moons orbiting Pluto that had never been seen before: Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx. The telescope also helped scout out a distant Kuiper Belt Object named 2014 MU69, one billion miles beyond Pluto. In 2019, it became the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft when the New Horizons mission flew by it. Now, the object is known as Arrokoth.

Outside of our solar system, Hubble has explored our Milky Way galaxy and neighboring galaxies. The dramatic, colorful images Hubble is known for are largely of active nebulae in our galaxy, bright clouds of gas and dust where stars are forming.

In 1997, a servicing mission installed NICMOS on Hubble, the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer. This new instrument allowed the observatory to peer through the thick gas and dust surrounding star nurseries in galaxies, where the stars emit infrared light.

Rodger Thompson, the lead for NICMOS and an astronomy professor in the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, began working on the proposal for the instrument in 1984. It shaped the future of infrared astronomy, from revealing secrets of star formation to looking back at the earliest galaxies in the universe.

This is a near-infrared image of the Pillars of Creation, columns of gas and dust where new stars are born. It shows the new stars that weren't apparent in the visible light version of the image, which can be seen in the gallery.

“We could see down into these dusty regions where stars are being formed in all the exquisite detail with Hubble,” Thompson said. “And we were able to trace star formation in the history of the universe, way back to the earliest galaxies, which were only a few percent of the age of the universe when they formed.”

In near-infrared, seemingly blank parts of sky appeared to light up with the evidence of distant galaxies, and no one expected that, Thompson said.