Hubble Gives Us a Front Row Seat to the Universe

This blog post is one in a series marking the 30th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. For more information and resources regarding Hubble’s 30th anniversary, please visit hubblesite. This particular post by Ray Villard also relates to a series of articles available here.

Since its launch in April 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has excited and enthralled the world with awe-inspiring, enticing, and colorfully dramatic views of the universe. The power of these images cannot be underestimated. More than just “pretty pictures,” they ignite the public’s natural curiosity to comprehend the vast cosmos. Hubble’s jaw-dropping views have made it the world’s most celebrated telescope, and provided a visual shorthand for its achievements.

Hubble’s discoveries and images have been nothing less than transformative for the public’s perception of space. Unlike any other telescope before it, Hubble has made astronomy very relevant, engaging, and accessible for people of all ages. Hubble has become “the people’s telescope,” touching the minds as well as the emotions of hundreds of millions of people around the globe.


Hubble’s view of the Carina Nebula shows star birth in a new level of detail. The fantasy-like landscape of the nebula is sculpted by the action of outflowing winds and scorching ultraviolet radiation from the monster stars that inhabit this inferno.

A single Hubble snapshot can portray the universe as awesome, mysterious, and beautiful—and at the same time chaotic, overwhelming, and foreboding. These pictures have become iconic, seminal, and timeless.

Hubble photographs know no national, political, or ideological boundaries. They are a subtle reminder that we are a common species on a small planet. There are no language or cultural barriers to being awestruck by Hubble images.

As the “people’s telescope,” Hubble’s legacy can be found gracing everything from coffee cups to record album covers to Times Square billboards. They’re on scarves, shirts, laptop screen savers, U-Haul trucks, and even tattoos! Hubble has made cameo appearances in several science fiction movies, and the telescope’s images have inspired cinematic special effects artists.

The public’s appetite for being enthralled by new Hubble achievements has never diminished. Among NASA’s top accomplishments, Hubble has run the science marathon over the past 30 years. And the telescope is expected to continue its tireless sprint well into the future.

A 2004 New York Times editorial read: “Hubble has taught us to see the properties of a universe humans have been able, for most of their history, to probe only with their thoughts.”

A detail from the Bayeux Tapestry shows Halley’s Comet and King Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England, receiving word of an invading Norman fleet. The Latin at upper left reads: “They wonder at the star.”

Astronomy has always been a preeminently visual science. In fact, astronomy and art have been inseparable for centuries, dating back to a reproduction of Halley’s comet woven into the Bayeux Tapestry, which depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England in the 11th century. Today, Hubble’s awesome photos are a carefully balanced blend of art and science.

Powerful telescopes of the mid-20th century, such as the landmark 200-inch Mount Palomar telescope, produced mostly black and white photos of classic celestial objects. These space snapshots, which at best added up to a dozen or two sky portraits, were repeatedly used in popular books and even sci-fi TV shows like The Outer Limits.

In the years preceding Hubble’s vast celestial portfolio, space enthusiasts had only a limited selection of mostly black and white astronomical images from the major observatories.

Hubble’s visual impact vastly exceeds this mid-20th century space portfolio. Because the pictures are digital, they can be easily transmitted. And, at the same time Hubble came along, the Internet provided a global delivery mechanism, making it one of the most powerful forces behind the telescope’s celebrity status. The wonders of the universe can be handed out to everyone with a few keyboard clicks. This is a democratization of space visualization. Everyone around the world can download colorful images and make prints, screensavers, and even coffee mugs.

Hubble gallery of downloadable digital images

By contrast, during the Voyager flybys of the outer solar system planets, reporters had to stand in line at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, like kids in a school cafeteria line, to get hard-copy prints of the snapshots of the outer planets. With Hubble, those days have become ancient history.

HUBBLE HAD HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

Before Hubble’s 1990 launch, NASA public affairs materials boasted of how a telescope in space—placed high above Earth’s blurring atmosphere—was going to reveal the universe at 10 times more clarity. This ability would allow Hubble to look much deeper into space than ever before, encompassing a much greater volume than was as clearly accessible with ground-based telescopes of the time.

However, under pressure from the top astronomers who developed the Hubble instruments, NASA abandoned a proposal, called the Early Release Program (ERO), to take a quick look at a selection of photogenic celestial targets.

Some of the Hubble principal investigators who built the cameras worried that someone could take an ultra-sharp Hubble photo printed on the cover of TIME magazine, discover something new in the image, and quickly write a science paper—preempting the Hubble instrument teams.

This colorful view of the globular cluster NGC 6362 on the left was captured by the La Silla Observatory in Chile. Hubble took the close-up view of the crowded core. Some Hubble instrument scientists worried that glamorous “early release” images of such targets might give away important science secrets that could be scooped before research papers were published. Ironically, pictures of this quality had to wait until Hubble’s optical flaw was corrected.

“The public can wait,” quipped one of the lead investigators. The reality is that no one in the public wanted to wait.

At a “launch minus two days” press conference at the Kennedy Space Center on April 22, 1990, the news media hounded the then NASA Associate Administrator for Astrophysics, Dr. Lennard Fisk, that they wanted to see the very first image from Hubble. After diligently reporting on Hubble’s $1.5 billion price tag, reporters wanted instant gratification. They insisted on getting the very first peek under the curtain into the new universe that NASA’s Hubble promoters were touting. Some scientists accused NASA of hyping Hubble, and the news folks wanted to see the payoff, and fast.

The challenge was that a mundane engineering target was the first candidate for this so-called “first light” image. It was selected for calibration purposes and not as a “pretty picture.”

On May 20, 1990, the news media gathered at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, to see the first-light image of the open star cluster NGC 3532. The cluster was ill-suited for exciting the public because it is much wider than Hubble’s narrow field of view.

Hubble’s official “first light” image of a few stars in an open star cluster compared to the view from a ground-based telescope. In hindsight, artifacts from the flawed mirror appear as tentacles around the brighter stars.

To show that the telescope was performing better than ground-based instruments, the same star field was photographed by a telescope with a comparably sized mirror to Hubble’s mirror, at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. This “Nutra-System” comparison was supposed to convince the public that Hubble was living up to expectations. But the NASA TV script for the live event included the caution: If the Hubble picture doesn’t look better, don’t show the comparison!

The black and white Hubble image, sprinkled with a few stars, was a little better than the ground-based view. Nevertheless, the news media graciously reported that Hubble was meeting expectations.

The accompanying NASA press release said that comparison images demonstrated a “remarkable increase in resolution of the Hubble even at this early stage of the focusing task.” However, a time-bomb was contained in the image, though only a few inside experts fully grasped it at the moment. The Hubble stars looked like they had very curious tentacles coming off of them.

Even with the focusing flaw, a Hubble image of a star (right) was much sharper that a typical ground-based telescopic image (left). There was a bright core where some of the Hubble light came to a focus, but most of the light was scattered into a blurry halo.

Engineers largely dismissed these features, saying that the telescope was not fully focused. The reality—as astronomers soon discovered in the following weeks—was that the telescope’s 8-foot-diameter mirror was ground to the wrong curvature. The mirror was a tiny bit too shallow at its edge. But the physics of light is unforgiving. This meant that all the Hubble images were blurry—the ultimate irony for a telescope advertised as the sharpest astronomical instrument ever built.

Without any ERO images as backup, red-faced NASA officials went before Congress in early July 1990 to explain the optical screw-up. They had no snapshots because the ERO program had been killed. The consequence was that congressmen and the public had the mistaken impression that Hubble was blind. The telescope’s “Mr. Magoo” vision was mocked in numerous political cartoons and by late-night talk show comedians.

With computer image processing, a Hubble image of the core of a globular cluster (right) is significantly better than what could be resolved from ground-based telescopes (left).

By late July, scientists realized that Hubble was doing better than ground-based telescopic space pictures. Hubble researchers had to use computer algorithms to process the images so that much of the blurriness was minimized, especially for reasonably bright stellar targets. NASA scrambled to put out an image of the star cluster R136 in late July to essentially show that Hubble images are not that bad after all.

On the public relations front, there was a desire to have a color image released from Hubble. The telescope’s Faint Object Camera had taken exquisite images of a bizarre ring around supernova 1987A. The camera snapped pictures only in black and white because it did not have color filters. So, the FOC team decided to artificially tint the image—like colorizing old black-and-white movies.

The ring was tinted yellow to correspond to sulfur emission; the central debris cloud colored red to reflect hydrogen emission, and the background stars, blue. In hindsight, it’s very ironic that the first publicly released color image from Hubble was a paint-by-number job.

The first multi-color public image from Hubble was of an nicely resolved ring around supernova 1987a. The picture was black and white, but then tinted with colors to represent hydrogen emission (pink) and sulfur emission (yellow).

 

Getting their hands on a confidential memo to NASA by an outreach scientist that endorsed the idea (I didn’t), the Sacramento Bee headline read: “NASA to Release Color Hubble Photos—with a Spin.”

By the end of 1990 the first true-color images were released to the public. The planets Jupiter and Saturn are very photogenic, and bright enough for image restoration algorithms to be applied. Initial hard-copy prints of Jupiter had a greenish cast because the principal investigator of the camera was color-blind. (We fixed that!)

Hubble’s first true-color picture of the planet Jupiter.

The first Hubble color picture of a nebula was the Orion region. Remarkably, in 1992, Hubble—even with its blurry vision—photographed swirling disks of dust around many of the stars in Orion. Such planet-assembly disks had been hypothesized by 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant, looking at the architecture of our solar system. Hubble provided the first direct visible-light proof for such disks. And this would soon be followed by the discovery of full-grown planets around other stars by ground-based telescopes.

Hubble’s discovery images of planet-forming disks in the Orion Nebula would presage the discovery of planets around other stars a few years later.

 

HUBBLE REBORN

In December 1993, during the STS-61 space shuttle servicing mission to Hubble, astronauts installed a new camera with corrected optics, essentially “contact lenses,” to compensate for Hubble’s blurry vision. The landmark, first test image was a comparison of the central region of the grand spiral galaxy M100 before and after Hubble’s optical correction. This image was part of a well-planned ERO program to enthrall the public with sharp images. “The trouble with Hubble is over!” Maryland U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski triumphantly declared in early 1994 at a NASA press conference.

At a January 1994 NASA press conference, Maryland U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski triumphantly displays the seminal Hubble “comeback kid” demonstration image of the core of galaxy M100. The left image was taken with the first-generation Wide Field Planetary Camera. The right image is from the optically corrected replacement camera. The “contact lens” prescription was perfect.

Six months later, news articles no longer characterized the space telescope as the “repaired Hubble” when comet Shoemaker Levy 9 (SL/9) slammed into Jupiter. For a week straight the public was treated to fantastic close-up Hubble images of a bruised-looking Jupiter from a cascade of comet-impact explosions. Hubble photos were at the forefront of this estimated once-in-1,000-year event. Good timing!

The SL/9 collision was a cultural game-changer for astronomers in demonstrating the power of the emerging Internet for real-time communication in watching an unfolding astronomical event. For the Hubble folks the days of mailing out hard-copy photographic prints were over. All of the Hubble pictures zipped across the Internet.

Hubble’s series of spectacular images of a “bruised” Jupiter from a string of impacts from the doomed comet SL/9. This largely erased the public recollection that Hubble was once bleary-eyed.

After SL/9 the world was quickly flooded with Hubble space postcards! Nearly weekly, Hubble pictures began flowing out. But thousands of pictures later, the one that holds the gold medal for being the most iconic from Hubble is a portrait of three stalagmite-looking towers of dark gas in the heart of the Eagle nebula, a nearby star-forming region.

In 1995, after a little game of word association in my office, we came up with the nickname “Pillars of Creation.” The name galvanized public recognition of this image. And, the name has stuck all these years.

The Eagle nebula “Pillars of Creation” remains Hubble’s most legendary and iconic image.

I have pondered over more than two decades why the Eagle is the top dog of Hubble images. I have received numerous requests for the image from people who never previously gave astronomy a second thought. I think it’s because the nebula looks organic in an eerie, creepy way. It’s not what people ever expected to see in space. It looks alien beyond imagination. Its visceral impact on the public perception of space is immeasurable. Facsimiles of it have shown up in special-effects shots created for numerous Hollywood sci-fi movies.

Equally iconic, but in a far less visceral way—and in a more intellectual way—is the legendary Hubble Deep Field from 1995. It was really a crap-shoot to invest 1 million seconds of Hubble exposure time to “go fishing” by staring at a what looked like a comparatively blank piece of the sky. Some astronomers worried that the observation might be as inconsequential as looking for the proverbial black cat in a coal bin.

The gamble on peering deep into the universe paid off in the Hubble Deep Field. This was Hubble’s first historic step into unveiling a rich and discordant universe awash with an estimated 1 trillion galaxies. One long-exposure captures billions of years of cosmic evolution.

Some astronomers predicted that very distant galaxies might be too faint to ever be seen by Hubble, and precious observing time would be wasted. But the field was overpowering in its depth and mystery. To borrow a line from the Arthur C. Clarke “2001: A Space Odyssey” 1968 novel, astronomers could at last exclaim, “My God it’s full of galaxies!

The impact of this core sample of the universe cannot be overestimated. The image encapsulates almost the entire history of galaxy evolution. It takes the viewer down a time corridor stretching back over 12 billion years. To astronomers, it’s like flipping backward though the pages of a history book: the Whole Universe Catalog. Subsequent deep fields bolstered by newer cameras pushed back farther in time, and also pushed the superlatives from “ultra” to “extreme” deep fields.

 

In 2004, a “New York Times” editorial ranked Hubble’s photographic impact on culture alongside that of the Apollo moon mission pictures of Earth from space: “The pictures the Hubble has given us rank in importance with Apollo’s canonical Earthrise over the moon. And the telescope has done it all at a reasonable price.” (I highlight reasonable because there is a public misconception that NASA’s collective space exploration is exorbitant.)

The editorial supported reinstating a fourth servicing mission to Hubble, following the 2004 servicing mission cancellation by NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe. This was, arguably, a misguided reaction to the deadly space shuttle Columbia accident in early 2003 where a damaged shuttle thermal protection tile essentially allowed a wing to melt off the orbiter on atmospheric reentry. O’Keefe had been misled into thinking that the public wouldn’t care about his solitary decision in killing the Hubble mission because of astronaut safety concerns.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. Hubble’s dazzling pictures had built up public support, like interest in the “bank of public opinion.” An army reserve of “Hubble Huggers” rose up to protest abandoning Hubble with the vehemence of shooting the dog “Old Yeller” in the 1956 Disney film. School children collected lunch money to contribute to revisiting Hubble.

A photo that looks straight out of a Hollywood space action film. Space shuttle Atlantis blazes skyward off of its launch pad for a rendezvous with Hubble on May 11, 2009. In the foreground, a “rescue shuttle,” Endeavour, stands by in case the Atlantis is damaged on launch and the crew needs to be rescued in space.

In 2006, the fourth servicing mission was reinstated by O’Keefe’s successor, NASA Administrator Mike Griffith, who was convinced that enhanced shuttle safety issues could be addressed by NASA know-how.

The final shuttle servicing mission to Hubble roared out of Kennedy Space Center on a Promethean flame on May 11, 2009. On the next launch pad was the Endeavour, a “rescue shuttle” ready to go, just in case the shuttle Atlantis was damaged on liftoff, as happened to the doomed Columbia space shuttle.

After wrestling with a stuck bolt while replacing an earlier generation camera on Hubble, astronauts finally installed the spanking-new Wide Field Camera 3. The camera has been Hubble’s “workhorse,” ever since then, producing even more dazzling images over the past decade.

Hubble’s longest-lasting legacy is an extreme deep field encompassing 10,000 galaxies across space and time. Stretching from Hubble’s ultraviolet view to near-infrared light captured by its newest camera, this represents the farthest and most colorful view of the universe ever assembled from multiple exposures. It’s a game-changer in our perception of our place in the universe.

 

The fully outfitted camera, however, almost didn’t make it to Hubble because of budget challenges. There was an internal NASA debate whether to include a near-infrared-light channel on the camera. The channel allowed Hubble to push within 400 million years of the big bang—where most of a galaxy’s light is stretched into infrared wavelengths by the expanding universe.

With its near-infrared capability, Hubble is letting astronomers look across 97 percent of the universe’s history. In 2010 it was thought that a probe that far back could only be done with the planned infrared cameras aboard the James Webb Space Telescope. Webb promises to push farther, to within 200 million years of the big bang, unveiling perhaps the genesis of star and galaxy formation.

A firestorm of star birth ensues from a collision between two galaxies.

The power of Hubble imagery as a civilization game changer was encapsulated in a 2002 New York Times editorial:

“. . .you see both energy and matter, revealed with a vibrancy that is simply overpowering. As forms, as colors, these objects are entrancing. But it’s only when you begin to realize what these forms are that the real wonder appears. Beyond the uniformity of the naked-eye universe, there is this other universe, the one Hubble discovers with astonishing clarity. This is a place full of discordant objects, of cataclysmic disturbances. Galaxies devour each other. Stars form in infernos of gas and dust and light. And they do so against the backdrop of a sky that is almost unimaginably deep.”

Philadelphia-based writer and mixed-media artist Barry Vacker takes Hubble’s impact a step further: “Four centuries after Galileo, Hubble has exponentially ramped up our non-centrality by showing we are the center of absolutely nothing, a tiny species in a majestic and indifferent universe. All 21st-century philosophy exists in the wake of the Hubble telescope.”

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