Hubble's new camera peers into depths of space, time

First images from addition to space telescope show `galaxy after galaxy'

May 01, 2002|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - The first pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope's powerful new Advanced Camera for Surveys were released yesterday, and they are so packed with detail that astronomers had to blow one of them up into an 8-foot-by-8-foot poster to show it all off.

"It's just galaxy after galaxy," said Johns Hopkins University astronomer Holland Ford, principal investigator on the advanced camera team. "My colleagues and I were stunned. We had underestimated how extraordinary the images would be."

The new pictures include two intricate views of colliding galaxies; an eerie picture of a vast column of cold, dark gas and dust; and the colorful Omega Nebula, where newborn stars are forming in a cloud of glowing gas.

Astronauts installed the $75 million Advanced Camera for Surveys during a spacewalk March 7. Scientists and engineers at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore have been working since to focus and align the camera's mirrors, check out its electronics and capture and process its first images.

"Hubble is back in business, and everything works great, period," said Ed Weiler, associate NASA administrator for space science.

It was Weiler who in 1990 had to announce that Hubble's vision was blurred by a flaw (since fixed) in its primary mirror. He was jubilant yesterday at the success of the new camera.

"Especially in the Hubble program, you don't open the Champagne until the final curtain," he said. But now, he said, "sometimes I wake up in the morning and I worry this has all been a dream."

National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials said yesterday that a cooling system installed last month to revive Hubble's idled Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer is also working, though it took twice as long as expected to cool the instrument to 330 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The first images from NICMOS are expected next month.

The only bad news from Hubble is that one of its gyroscopes is still drawing more electric power than it should and could fail at any time, said Preston Burch, Hubble Project manager at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. If it does, Hubble has a backup, he said.

The new advanced camera's superior power lies in its improved sensitivity, resolution and speed, and in the wider field of view of its light detectors. The instrument is expected to enable astronomers to peer deep into the universe, revealing stars and galaxies as they appeared when they formed and as they evolved through time.

Scientists also hope to map the structure of galaxies and galaxy clusters; learn more about the mysterious acceleration in the expansion of the universe; peer deep into the hearts of galaxies, and find evidence for the existence of Earth-like planets circling distant stars.

One of the four pictures released yesterday shows a graceful "pinwheel" galaxy, nicknamed "Tadpole," 420 million light years from Earth. Attached to it is a long streamer of stars pulled away during a collision with a second galaxy, which is embedded deep in its core.

Ford said there is much new detail in the pictures. But what has astonished scientists is the unexpected crowd of far-more-distant galaxies - thousands of them - in the background.

The image reveals spiral galaxies in many colors and angles to the camera, and a seemingly infinite array of other oddly shaped galaxies, visible at many different stages in their evolution since the "Big Bang" that is believed to have given birth to the universe about 13 billion years ago.

Scientists hope to use such images to understand that evolution. "We want to see how galaxies formed from one billion years [after the Big Bang] to the present," Ford said.

He said the 3,000 galaxies in the picture are twice as many as scientists could see in the famed Hubble Deep Field image, taken in 1995 by the observatory's old Wide Field Planetary Camera 2. And, the new image was recorded in just four hours - one-twelfth the time it took to record the earlier image.

Best of all, Weiler said, those 3,000 galaxies inhabit just one one-hundred-millionth of the sky. With that many galaxies out there and each one home to billions of stars, he said, "how can we look at a picture like this and think we are alone?"

Information: http://oposite.stsci.edu/pubinfo/pr/2002/11

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