A birthday written in the stars

Breathtaking images released for Hubble's 15th

April 25, 2005|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Fifteen years ago today, astronauts aboard the space shuttle Discovery released into orbit the largest, most powerful observatory ever built for service in the stillness of space, fulfilling a decades-old dream of astronomers everywhere.

Since then, from its perch high above the muddling effects of the Earth's atmosphere, the Hubble Space Telescope has overcome manufacturing flaws and equipment breakdowns, succeeding far beyond its designers' expectations.

It has made more than three-quarters of a million photographs. They have amazed the public and scientists alike, and added enormously to our knowledge and understanding of the universe.

Today, to mark the observatory's 15th anniversary, NASA and the European Space Agency have released two spectacular new views of celestial objects that have made headlines in the past.

One is the Eagle Nebula. Its eerie towers of dust and gas, backlit and eroded by powerful ultraviolet radiation from a pack of massive, hot stars, reveal the birthplaces of many infant stars. They're forming as clumps of cold gas and dust collapse.

Like the sensational 1995 original, the new view, shot in January, reveals what looks like some grotesque living creature, rising in dark, menacing silhouette against the torrent of starlight.

"The aesthetic consideration was an important criterion here," said Mario Livio, the Space Telescope Institute's senior scientist. He said the photo, viewed from a distance, reminds him of a 1947 sculpture called Man Pointing by the modern Italian master Alberto Giacometti.

The other new image shows the Whirlpool Galaxy - a classical spiral galaxy 23 million light years from Earth and 65,000 light years across.

It contains billions of young blue stars and older yellow ones. The crowd of stars at the center of the spiral is 5,000 times more concentrated than those in our own stellar neighborhood. The smaller galaxy on the right is far in the background, partly obscured by dark dust on one of the Whirlpool's spiral arms.

NASA says Hubble's 2-year-old Advanced Camera for Surveys, installed during the last space shuttle maintenance mission, snapped both objects and captures enough fine detail that the images can be enlarged to billboard size without sacrificing detail.

"It was like going from regular TV to hi-def - the quality is so much better," said Keith Noll, principal investigator of the Hubble Heritage Project, which collects and disseminates the telescope's most striking images.

Hubble, which has cost $5.5 billion so far, is expected to break down in orbit as early as 2007 if NASA does not revive plans to launch a fifth servicing mission.

But it will have chalked up a list of major accomplishments: It helped narrow estimates of the age of the universe to 13.7 billion years; and it has confirmed the existence of super-massive black holes at the center of galaxies, and the mysterious "dark energy" that is accelerating the expansion of the cosmos.

It imaged some of the first galaxies that formed less than one billion years after the big bang, revealed the presence of planets around stars beyond our solar system and provided a front-row view of the 1994 impact of a shattered comet with the planet Jupiter.

In its 15 years in orbit, it has been repaired, serviced and upgraded by astronauts four times. It has orbited the Earth almost 88,000 times and sent home enough data to fill 23 million novels.

More than 3,900 astronomers around the world have observed the heavens with Hubble, producing more than 4,000 peer-reviewed scientific papers. And its photos grace textbooks and classrooms around the world.

To download the latest Hubble images, visit www.space telescope.org.

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