Scientists today released images that slice across billions of light-years to probe the cosmic-web structure of the universe and map the distribution of elements that are fundamental to life. The images look back to times when the universe was millions of light-years younger than it is today.
"This marks a new beginning for Hubble," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "The telescope was given an extreme makeover and now is significantly more powerful than ever, well-equipped to last into the next decade."
Hubble Space Telescope as seen from the departing Space Shuttle Atlantis after completion of the final repair mission in May 2009. (Photo courtesy NASA)
Named after American astronomer Edwin Hubble, the space telescope was carried into orbit by the space shuttle in April 1990. The Hubble is the only telescope ever designed to be serviced in space by astronauts, but after the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident, the fifth servicing mission was canceled on safety grounds. After much public discussion, NASA reconsidered, and administrator Mike Griffin approved one final Hubble servicing mission.
During the mission launched in May 2009, astronauts installed two new instruments and made numerous repairs. The latest servicing should allow the telescope to function until at least 2014, when its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is due to be sent aloft.
At NASA headquarters today, Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, unveiled the dramatic pictures of far-flung galaxies, a densely packed star cluster, and a butterfly-shaped nebula.
"I fought for the Hubble repair mission because Hubble is the people's telescope," said Mikulski, chairwoman of the Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee that funds NASA. "I also fought for Hubble because it constantly rewrites the science textbooks. It has more discoveries than any other science mission."
Hubble's new instruments allow study of the universe across most of the light spectrum, from ultraviolet to near-infrared. The Webb telescope will observe only in infrared.
Hubble's view of 100,000 stars in the crowded core of the massive globular cluster Omega Centauri, which encompasses nearly 10 million stars. (Photo courtesy NASA)
The new instruments are more sensitive to light than the previous generation of instruments and so will improve Hubble's observing efficiency. It is able to complete observations in a fraction of the time that was needed before.
"We couldn't be more thrilled with the quality of the images from the new Wide Field Camera 3 and repaired Advanced Camera for Surveys, and the spectra from the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph and the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph," said Keith Noll, leader of a team at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which planned the early release observations.
"The targets we've selected to showcase the telescope reveal the great range of capabilities in our newly upgraded Hubble," Noll said.
"Hubble is our greatest example of our astronauts working together with scientists to show American leadership and ingenuity," said Mikulski. "I want to salute Team Hubble - everyone who worked on Hubble from the Goddard Space Flight Center and Space Telescope Science Institute scientists in Maryland, to the ground crew at the Kennedy Space Center, to the Johnson Space Center where the astronauts train, and to the astronauts who were heroes in space."
The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. Goddard manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute conducts Hubble science operations. The institute is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy Inc. in Washington, and is an International Year of Astronomy 2009 program partner.
These cauldrons of gas heated to more than 36,000 degrees F surround a dying star that was once about five times the mass of the Sun. The "butterfly" in Planetary Nebula NGC 6302 stretches across more than two light-years. (Photo courtesy NASA)
For the past three months, scientists and engineers at the Space Telescope Science Institute and Goddard have been focusing, testing, and calibrating Hubble'sinstruments.
Hubble is one of the most complex space telescopes ever launched, and the Hubble servicing mission astronauts performed major surgery on the 19-year-old observatory's multiple systems. This orbital verification phase was interrupted briefly July 19 to observe Jupiter in the aftermath of a collision with a suspected comet.
"On this mission we wanted to replenish the tool kit of Hubble instruments on which scientists around the world rely to carry out their cutting-edge research," said David Leckrone, senior project scientist for Hubble at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.
"Prior to this servicing mission, we had only three unique instrument channels still working, and today we have 13," Leckrone said. "I'm very proud to be able to say, mission accomplished."
Hubble now enters a phase of full science observations. There are ambitious plans to take the deepest-ever near-infrared portrait of the universe to reveal never-before-seen infant galaxies that existed when the universe was less than 500 million years old.
Other planned observations will attempt to shed light on the behavior of dark energy, a repulsive force that is pushing the universe apart at an ever-faster rate.
Observations will range from studying the population of Kuiper Belt objects at the fringe of our solar system to surveying the birth of planets around other stars and probing the composition and structure of extrasolar planet atmospheres.
Copyright Environment News Service, ENS, 2009. All rights reserved.