Speaking of Hubble...

Archive: September 2009

Another milestone for Hubble

September 29, 2009 by Mario Livio
Stephan's Quintet, one of the first images from the renovated Hubble Space Telescope.

Stephan's Quintet, one of the first images from the renovated Hubble Space Telescope.

On September 10, 2009, in the evening, the Hubble Space Telescope obtained its 900,000th exposure since its launch in April 1990!

Not all, of course, were exposures of celestial objects (some were taken for calibration purposes), but still, think about it for a moment — Hubble has created an album of hundreds of thousands of images of the universe. I am reminded of the words of the American poet Jean Toomer, who wrote once:

Beyond plants are animals,

Beyond animals is man,

Beyond man is the universe.

Hubble has allowed us to actually see that cosmos which is beyond us, and has given us a chance to decipher the laws that govern its workings. With all the instruments on board Hubble now working, we can look forward to a period of great scientific productivity, and even more breathtaking images.

What a long, strange SMOV it’s been …

September 15, 2009 by Rachel Osten
Two of the new images taken by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3, NGC 6302, popularly know as the "Butterfly Nebula" (top), and globular star cluster Omega Centauri (detail, bottom).

Two pictures from the upgraded Hubble Space Telescope: the Butterfly Nebula (top) and globular cluster Omega Centauri (detail, bottom).

Here at the Space Telescope Science Institute we are recovering from a whirlwind summer commissioning the new and repaired instruments on Hubble. Our public unveiling last Wednesday was a rocking success, judging from the reactions: the Internet was abuzz with comments, and tens of millions of you were hungry to see the images and get your hands on them. The network here at the Institute was considerably slower than normal on Wednesday and Thursday — not that we minded, as we all knew the reason why!

You might be thinking that we wizened astronomers are used to seeing such amazing images all the time, and are jaded by this awesome display of Hubble’s power. It’s not true, though. The auditorium here was packed with people eager to watch the press conference and see the results of our hard work, and almost everyone was seeing these results for the first time. I’m on the team that handles one of Hubble’s new instruments, the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS), and even I hadn’t seen the results beforehand.  It was amazing to see the images of the butterfly nebula, and the dramatic reds and blues of the star cluster Omega Centauri.

The targets for these early release observations were chosen not just for the stunning presentations they make at press conferences, but for the legitimate science that can be done with the data. And so it was fitting that at our Friday morning coffee last week, only two days after the press release, we scientists were eager to discuss some of the first papers that had already been submitted on the science from Hubble’s new instruments.  These papers detailed discoveries of some of the youngest known galaxies, which would not have been visible without Hubble’s new instruments. Discovery of these young galaxies will now become routine, as the search turns to even younger galaxies.

The process of adjusting Hubble, called Servicing Mission Orbital Verification (SMOV) has not finished yet; some remaining calibration and confirmation data remains to be taken. The emphasis now is on routine operation of Hubble’s instruments for astronomers who have been waiting for their long-promised observations.

The tedious process of documenting all the activities that took place over the summer is also ongoing, but it’s nice to be able to reflect on the summer with a smile on my face and a few new images for my computer background, knowing that Hubble has a new lease on life and is going as strong — if not stronger — than ever.