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APR. 2007

Birthday Wishes for Hubble

Portion of the Carina Nebula
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Hubble's gift to the public: The Carina Nebula image

Astronomers are placing another candle on Hubble’s birthday cake. The Earth-orbiting telescope is celebrating its 17th birthday, making it a mere teenager. This teenager, however, has produced some breathtaking images of celestial objects and has helped astronomers answer many important questions about our universe.

A great observatory

Hubble Space Telescope
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The Hubble Space Telescope:
17 years in orbit

NASA launched the Earth-orbiting telescope on April 24, 1990, when George W. Bush’s father was president and the World Wide Web was still a dream. In its 17 years of exploring the heavens, the telescope has snapped nearly 500,000 images of more than 25,000 celestial objects. It has made nearly 100,000 trips around Earth. Those trips have racked up lots of frequent-flier-miles — more than 2.4 billion, the equivalent of a round trip to Saturn.

Hubble’s 17 years of observations have produced more than 30 terabytes of data, equal to about 25 percent of the information stored in the Library of Congress. Each day the orbiting observatory generates about 10 gigabytes of data, enough information to fill the hard drive of a typical home computer in two weeks.

The Hubble archive sends about 66 gigabytes of information each day to astronomers throughout the world. Astronomers using Hubble data have published nearly 7,000 scientific papers, making it one of the most productive scientific instruments ever built.

Hubble's birthday gift to the public

small image of zoomable interface
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Zoomable Carina image:
Get as close or as far away as you want

To celebrate Hubble’s 17th birthday, NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute are releasing an image of the Carina Nebula, a 3-million-year-old gigantic cloud of gas. The gaseous cloud is a busy star-making factory that is churning out tens of thousands of stars. Peeking inside the star-making factory, the Hubble Space Telescope offers a dramatic glimpse of a fairytale landscape of dust and gas that is being sculpted by energetic young stars.

Looking near and far

This jaw-dropping image is just the latest of Hubble’s many accomplishments. During its 17 years in space, Hubble looked close to home at our solar system planets, gazed far across space to see galaxies in their infancy, provided decisive evidence for the existence of giant black holes, and detected an invisible force that makes up the bulk of the energy in our universe.

Planets, planets everywhere

In our solar system neighborhood, the telescope witnessed pieces of a broken-up comet smash into Jupiter, giving the planet several “black eyes.” Hubble also spied two new moons orbiting Pluto.

Peering at stars near the center of our Milky Way galaxy, Hubble conducted a census of Jupiter-sized planets. The telescope found 16 alien worlds, suggesting that there may be billions of Jupiter-sized planets in our galaxy.

Witnessing stellar death

Supernova 1987A
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Supernova 1987A:
A Hubble study of stellar death

Turning its gaze to aging stars, Hubble took snapshots of the “last hurrahs” of Sun-like stars. As ordinary stars begin to die, they shed their outer layers of gas and glow as planetary nebulae. The telescope also watched the aftermath of a supernova, the explosive death of a massive star. The Hubble observations of Supernova 1987A helped astronomers rewrite the textbooks on exploding stars.

Galaxies give up their secrets

Hubble helped astronomers calculate a precise age for the universe by measuring the distances to many galaxies. Astronomers now think the cosmos is about 13.7 billion years old.

Galaxies are everywhere in space, but Hubble looked far across our cosmos to see their building blocks. The Hubble observations provided solid evidence that galaxies grew over time to become the giant galaxies we see today.

Peering into the hearts of galaxies, Hubble provided decisive evidence that supermassive black holes reside in many of them. These “eating machines” gobble up any material that ventures near them. Black holes cannot be seen directly because no material, including light, escapes their grasp.

Shedding light on dark energy

Hubble's Top Science cover
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Hubble's Top Science Findings:
17 years of science

By witnessing bursts of light from faraway exploding stars, Hubble helped astronomers discover that a mysterious, invisible force called dark energy exists. The observations show that dark energy is making the universe expand at an ever-faster pace. Physicist Albert Einstein predicted its existence early last century, but he later said that his prediction was the biggest mistake of his career. Now, astronomers are proving that Einstein may have been right.

Although teenage Hubble has accomplished so much during its 17 years in space, its best scientific discoveries are yet to come. NASA is planning another servicing mission to keep Hubble operating for a few more years. Servicing mission astronauts will install two brand new science instruments that will allow Hubble to probe even farther into space. Who knows what secrets the telescope may uncover.

PDF of story and photos:
Hubble's 17th Birthday story and photos PDF

Photo with caption:
The Carina Nebula

Photo with caption:
Hubble Space Telescope

Zoomable photo:
Zoom in on Carina Nebula's details

Photo with caption:
Supernova 1987A

"Hubble's Top Science" PDF:
Hubble's Top Science Findings PDF

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The Star Witness

brings you "tele-scoops" from the Hubble Space Telescope