The Hubble telescope is officially 25-years-old and ready for its quarter-life crisis. Since its launch in 1990, Hubble has orbited our planet 137,000 times, offering up an otherwise-impossible view of the expanding forever, unhindered by our pesky, light-blocking atmosphere. Hubble has helped unravel some of astronomy’s biggest mysteries, like the age of the universe (now thought to be 13 to 14 billion-years-old) and it wouldn’t be right to let this birthday go unnoticed. We’ve rounded up some of our favorite images from the past 25 years of orbiting-telescope badassery.
Oh, just a star. Or two. Or 100,000. Hubble snapped this view of the crowded core of giant star cluster Omega Centauri in 2009. The image reveals a small, hundred-thousand-star region (tiny, right?) inside the globular cluster, which boasts nearly 10 million stars. These ancient swarms of stars are united by gravity, and are thought to be between 10 billion and 12 billion years old.
This portrait of the Helix Nebula offers a look down what is actually a trillion-mile-long tunnel of glowing gases. If you started running now, you’d make it to the end in oh – just over 14-billion years. Helix’s fluorescing tube is pointed almost directly at Earth, so we perceive it as more of a ‘bubble’ than a cylinder. A forest of thousands of comet-like filaments, embedded along the inner rim of the nebula, points back toward the central star, which is a small, super-hot white dwarf.
Hubble snapped this series of Saturn’s south pole aurora over a period of several days. As they do on Earth, the ringed planet’s auroras move around on some days and stay put on others, but compared with our “nothern lights,” which develop in about 10 minutes and may last for a few hours, Saturn’s auroral displays last for several days. These spectacles occur when charged particles in space collide with a planet’s magnetic field. The charged particles are accelerated to high energies and stream into the upper atmosphere where they collide with gasses, producing brilliant flashes of glowing energy in the form of visible, ultraviolet, and infrared light.
The butterfly effect
Don’t let its dainty appearance fool you: the wings of the Butterfly Nebula are actually cauldrons of gas heated to more than 36,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The gas is tearing across space at more than 600,000 miles an hour—fast enough to travel from Earth to the Moon in 24 minutes. Like all nebulae, this fury was caused by the death of a star, and represents one of the main sources of carbon in the universe, which we – in the end – are all made of!
It might not look like much, but streaming out of the center of galaxy M87 is one of space’s most amazing phenomenons: a black-hole-powered stream of electrons and other subatomic particles traveling at near-light speed. Cosmic laser, anyone? What you see in this image is the blue electron jet contrasted with the yellow glow from billions of unseen stars in the galaxy.
Known by some as “Glinda’s Bubble,” this celestial orb has slightly more menacing beginnings than Dorothy’s good witch. Remnant 0509-67.5 is what’s left after a supernova occurred 400 years ago (for earth viewers). This combination of visible light and X-ray shows the ambient gasses being shocked by the expanding blast wave from the supernova.
Back in 2004, Hubble did something big (it found space Sauron, obviously): it captured the first visible-light image of a planet around another star. Using what is called a coronographic mask, which basically works like sunglasses for a telescope lens, Hubble blocked out light the from the star Fomalhaut, exposing this encircling dust ring. Because the dust ring’s shape was pulled off-center, NASA scientists suspected a hidden planet. The box on the right shows two images of what is now called planet Fomalhaut b, captured in 2004 and 2006.
The colliding Antennae galaxies, located about 62 million light-years from Earth, are shown in this composite image by Hubble, Harvard’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, and NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope (see what happens when we all work together?). The epic collision, which began more than 100-million years ago and is still occurring now, has triggered the formation of millions of stars.
Introducing: The Sombrero Galaxy, a spiral galaxy seen nearly edge-on. Early astronomers thought the galactic hat was just a luminous ring of gas surrounding a young star, but in 1912, astronomer Vesto Melvin Slipher discovered the object appeared to be rushing away from us at 700 miles per second. This enormous velocity offered some of the earliest clues that the Sombrero was really another galaxy, and that the universe was expanding in all directions. The galaxy is 50,000 lightyears across (about one-fifth the diameter of our moon), and this photo is actually a composite of six – one of the largest mosaics ever created by Hubble!
This dizzying stellar grouping is called R136. It’s only a few million years old, but many of the diamond-like icy blue stars are among the largest stars ever observed. Several of them are over 100-times bigger than our Sun! NASA explains that these heavyweight stars are destined to pop off, “like a string of firecrackers,” as supernovae in the next few million years. Keep your eyes on the skies, folks.
It would be criminal not to end with this photo we’ve written about before – because WTF. You’re looking at an invisible object, nearly 10-billion lightyears away. This is perhaps the most spectacular example of gravitational lensing – where the gravitational field of a foreground galaxy (seen here in gold) bends and amplifies the light of a more distant galaxy (that crazy blue ring) – ever documented. It’s hard to wrap your mind around, but that blue ring of light has been warped nearly 90 degrees from its original position by gravity, essentially letting you see through the galaxy that’s blocking it. Science, we love you.
If you’re an astrophotophile like me and want to view these images (and hundreds of others!) in their full, high-res glory, head over to the Gallery!