Hubble’s Last Hurrah

The orbiting space telescope has captured star births and deaths, galactic collisions and the accelerating expansion of the universe

New discoveries should be visible to Hubble for the rest of the decade—if the scope survives. Manned maintenance missions, such as this one in 1999 to replace gyroscopes, have been canceled. NASA and Aura / STSCI
Stars are being born within the smoldering Swan Nebula 5,500 light-years away. NASA, ESA and J. Hester / ASU
In 2002, star V838 Monocerotis threw a brief, fiery fit. Over the next two years, this flash illuminated successive shells of surrounding dust, which were ejected by earlier outbursts. NASA, ESA, and H.E. Bond / STSCI
It's too bad Edgar Allan Poe couldn't have used Hubble's vertiginous image of the Whirlpool Galaxy to illustrate "A Descent into the Maelstrom." The red regions are hotbeds of star formation, activated by a companion galaxy that is beyond the upper edge of this image. The central glow is a bulge of dust that probably feeds a black hole. Hubble astronomers have discovered that the more massive a galaxy's bulge, the bigger its central black hole—which captures everything it can get its gravitational mitts on, including light—is fed by matter that strays too close as the galaxy grows. NASA and STSCI / Aura
Viewed edge-on, a spiral galaxy cuts a completely different figure than the swirling Whirlpool. Galaxy ESO 510-G13, about 100,00 light-years across, is unusual because it's warped rather than perfectly flat. Astronomers suspect the galaxy is a product of a recent collision between two independent galaxies that are still hashing out their gravitational differences. NASA and STSCI / Aura
Sometimes Hubble uses false-color images to highlight subtle features such as these clouds in Uranus' atmosphere. Hubble also discovered the smallest of Uranus' two dozen, so far, moons; they are only about ten miles across. NASA and Erich Karkoschka / University of Arizona
These spiral galaxy partners, locked in a dance to the death, are already showing signs of strain as their spiral arms are distorted by their great mutual gravitational pull. Eventually they'll merge into one galactic giant, probably starting out in a wobbly plane like that of Galaxy ESO 510-G13. NASA and STSCI
The Retna Nebula is a star blazing out in glory. Hubble captured the dying star's blast of gas and dust from the side; viewed from above it would look like an exploding doughnut. NASA and STSCI / Aura
Hubble continues to discover galaxies as far as its eye can see. The Ultra Deep Field survey captured 10,000 galaxies in a speck of sky one-tenth the diameter of the Moon. Some of these galaxies formed shortly—relatively speaking—after the Big Bang. A precocious few have already developed well-defined spiral arms, but many have yet to take on a mature galactic shape. NASA, ESA, S. Beckwith / STSCI and Hudf Team

Clear of earthly mists in an orbit 375 miles above Earth, the Hubble Space Telescope peers through the very mists of time. The universe has been expanding ever since the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago, and due to the time it takes light to travel, the farther away in space Hubble focuses its attention, the farther back in history it can see. Hubble has witnessed galaxies forming barely half a billion years after the Big Bang—capturing light generated 13 billion years ago. By flipping through Hubble's extraordinary snapshots, astronomers can trace the development of planets, stars, galaxies and even the universe itself.

Perhaps the biggest surprise to come from Hubble (backed by other instruments) is that the universe is not merely expanding, but it is expanding faster and faster, propelled by a mysterious force called dark energy. Astronomers have deduced that dark energy makes up more than 70 percent of the stuff in the universe. But what exactly is it? That's "the most crucial question facing physics today," says Hubble senior astronomer Mario Livio. To see dark energy in action, Hubble is clocking the speed of stars from when the universe first began accelerating four billion years after the Big Bang.

Hubble, launched by NASA in 1990, gazed farthest back in time during the Ultra Deep Field survey in 2004. Most of the 10,000 galaxies it surveyed were mere tots, born only half a billion years or so after the Big Bang. Some had oddball shapes such as loops or spears; after these gawky youngsters collide, the theory goes, they develop more familiar structures—ellipses or, like our Milky Way, tidy spirals.

Some of Hubble's most glorious images show clouds of gas and dust hundreds or thousands of light-years across. Given world enough and time, and a little hydrogen and helium, a star can form at the center of such a cloud and perhaps induce other stars to be born along with it. The result is what astronomers call a nursery of infant and toddler stars. As Hubble has enabled us to see, stellar death throes can be just as spectacular, spewing out waves of debris set aglow by the light of the dying star's embers.

In a solar system not far from ours, the space telescope made the first direct observation of an extrasolar planet. It has also watched a planet pass in front of its parent star, which illuminated the planet's atmosphere and revealed its chemical elements. Hubble has detected signs of water, methane and carbon dioxide on distant planets; scientists seeking signs of life elsewhere in the universe are focusing on planets with such chemical signatures. Closer to home, Hubble has discovered plan­etoids beyond Pluto. It also let us ooh and aah at Saturn's and Jupiter's equivalents of the northern lights.

Spaceflight takes a toll on any machine, and Hubble has lasted for two decades only because it has been serviced five times by space shuttle astronauts. In 1993, astronauts fitted its eight-foot mirror with a giant contact lens to correct its vision. Other missions have replaced gyroscopes, which stabilize the craft, and swapped outmoded instruments with updated ones. A final tuneup was carried out in 2009 by astronauts from the space shuttle Atlantis. They overhauled two balky instruments, delivered two new ones and installed new gyroscopes and batteries. A new computer, electrical insulation and a guidance sensor completed the detailing. After 20 years of service, Hubble is now expected to last until 2014 or so. Then the incomparable eye will blink shut.

Since Hubble's launch, astronomers have developed ground-based scopes that squint through the atmosphere and rival some of Hubble's observational powers. And other satellite telescopes have joined Hubble in orbit. They're tuned to X-rays or gamma rays, which are scientifically important but somehow less stirring than the good old visible light Hubble sees. And sure, there will be other telescopes that surpass the pioneering craft. But stargazers everywhere will rue the loss of Hubble's magnificent view.

Laura Helmuth is a senior editor for Smithsonian.

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