Hubble Opens New Eyes on the Universe
NASA's Hubble Space Telescope is back in business, ready to uncover new worlds, peer ever deeper into space, and even map the invisible backbone of the universe. The first snapshots from the refurbished Hubble showcase the 19-year-old telescope's new vision. Topping the list of exciting new views are colorful multi-wavelength pictures of far-flung galaxies, a densely packed star cluster, an eerie "pillar of creation," and a "butterfly" nebula. With its new imaging camera, Hubble can view galaxies, star clusters, and other objects across a wide swath of the electromagnetic spectrum, from ultraviolet to near-infrared light. A new spectrograph slices across billions of light-years to map the filamentary structure of the universe and trace the distribution of elements that are fundamental to life. The telescope's new instruments also are more sensitive to light and can observe in ways that are significantly more efficient and require less observing time than previous generations of Hubble instruments. NASA astronauts installed the new instruments during the space shuttle servicing mission in May 2009. Besides adding the instruments, the astronauts also completed a dizzying list of other chores that included performing unprecedented repairs on two other science instruments.
Now that Hubble has reopened for business, it will tackle a whole range of observations. Looking closer to Earth, such observations will include taking a census of the population of Kuiper Belt objects residing at the fringe of our solar system, witnessing the birth of planets around other stars, and probing the composition and structure of the atmospheres of other worlds. Peering much farther away, astronomers have ambitious plans to use Hubble to make the deepest-ever portrait of the universe in near-infrared light. The resulting picture may reveal never-before-seen infant galaxies that existed when the universe was less than 500 million years old. Hubble also is now significantly more well-equipped to probe and further characterize the behavior of dark energy, a mysterious and little-understood repulsive force that is pushing the universe apart at an ever-faster rate.
WASHINGTON – Astronomers declared NASA's Hubble Space Telescope a fully rejuvenated observatory with the release Wednesday of observations from four of its six operating science instruments.
Topping the list of new views are colorful, multi-wavelength pictures of far-flung galaxies, a densely packed star cluster, an eerie "pillar of creation," and a "butterfly" nebula. Hubble's suite of new instruments allows it to study the universe across a wide swath of the light spectrum, from ultraviolet all the way to near-infrared. In addition, scientists released spectroscopic observations 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 as we know it.
"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."
The new instruments are more sensitive to light and, therefore, will improve Hubble's observing efficiency significantly. It is able to complete observations in a fraction of the time that was needed with prior generations of Hubble instruments. The space observatory today is significantly more powerful than it ever has been.
"We couldn't be more thrilled with the quality of the images from the new Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) and repaired Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS), and the spectra from the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) and the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS)," 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."
These results are compelling evidence of the success of the STS-125 servicing mission in May, which has brought the space observatory to the apex of its scientific performance. Two new instruments, the WFC3 and COS, were installed, and two others, the ACS and STIS, were repaired at the circuit board level. Mission scientists also announced Wednesday that the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer was brought back into operation during the three months of calibration and testing.
"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 in Greenbelt, Md. "Prior to this servicing mission, we had only three unique instrument channels still working, and today we have 13. I'm very proud to be able to say, 'mission accomplished.' "
For the past three months, scientists and engineers at the Space Telescope Science Institute and Goddard have been focusing, testing, and calibrating the instruments. 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 23 to observe Jupiter in the aftermath of a collision with a suspected comet.
Hubble now enters a phase of full science observations. The demand for observing time will be intense. 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. 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.
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.