The Hubble Space Telescope Has Been In Space for 25 Years, Here’s What it Has Seen

The telescope has sent back some real beauties

The Hubble Space Telescope NASA/ Ruffnax (Crew of STS-125)

Some 340 miles above the surface of the Earth flies an object that looks a lot like an elongated tin can with two stubby wings. The Hubble Space Telescope may not be a sleek piece of technology, but wondrous images come from the utilitarian form every year. Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Hubble’s launch and as many years of repairs, images and discoveries.

By lifting its mirrors and optics above the thick, star-obscuring air of Earth, Hubble has been able to see deeper into space than any telescope before. Observations from Hubble have helped researchers hone in on a more precise date for the beginning of the universe, learn about how stars are born, watch their spectacular deaths, snap the first visible-light photo of a plant orbiting another star and more. 

But it's the images themselves, even without the trappings of scientific breakthroughs, that make Hubble a favorite. 

When assembled together, the thumbnails of the Hubble Heritage collection — a smorgasbord of the telescope’s most visually-striking images — look like a collection of exotic jewels. Viewed one-by-one, they illustrate the majesty of the universe. The effect can be humbling to the casual viewer perusing on a home computer and the expert astronomer alike.

Jason Kalirai, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, highlighted a special Hubble image in a story by Geoff Brumfiel for The Hubble Deep Field image, captured in December 1995, revealed thousands of as-yet-undiscovered galaxies after it peered at a tiny, seemingly dark section of the sky for 10 days. Brumfiel writes:

"We're basically sitting on a rock orbiting a star, and that star is one of a hundred billion in our galaxy," Kalirai says. "But the deep field tells us that galaxy is one galaxy out of a hundred billion in the universe."

"I think Hubble's contribution is that we're not very special," he says.

That may sound like a bummer, but Kalirai doesn't see it that way. "I think it's exciting," he says. "It gives us a lot more to learn about. ... If we're not very special, you can continue to ask that question: 'What's next?' "

The Hubble was designed to be repaired and serviced by astronauts, so with the retirement of the space shuttle, the telescope's last update was in 2009. Eventually, it will stop working and sink lower in orbit until it burns up sometime between 2030 and 2040. The flow of images won't stop: The James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2018, will continue Hubble's work.

The red shroud in this image is the supernova remnant of Cassiopeia A NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration
The Tarantuala Nebula is the largest star-forming region scientists have found in neighboring galaxies NASA, ESA, D. Lennon and E. Sabbi (ESA/STScI), J. Anderson, S. E. de Mink, R. van der Marel, T. Sohn, and N. Walborn (STScI), N. Bastian (Excellence Cluster, Munich), L. Bedin (INAF, Padua), E. Bressert (ESO), P. Crowther (University of Sheffield), A. de
Two galaxies dance together: The smaller one (bottom) apparently dove through the larger and now shows bursts of star formation in its center, perhaps triggered by the collision NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
The iconic Hubble Deep Field image combines 276 total frames from two different cameras working for ten days. Some of the galaxies in this photo, just a section of the full image, appear as they were ten billion years ago. Robert Williams and the Hubble Deep Field Team (STScI) and NASA
Orion Nebula, 1,500 light-years away, more that 3,000 stars are nestled in this "cavern of roiling dust and gas." NASA,ESA, M. Robberto (Space Telescope Science Institute/ESA) and the Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team
Closer to home, Hubble has offered stunning views of the planets in our own solar system, such as Saturn, here in ultraviolet light. NASA and E. Karkoschka (University of Arizona)
Zwicky 18 (bottom left) is possibly the youngest galaxy ever seen — NASA’s Hubble site calls the galaxy a late bloomer because it may not have started to form stars until 13 billion years after the Big Bang. A companion galaxy appears in the upper right. NASA, ESA, Y. Izotov (Main Astronomical Observatory, Kyiv, UA) and T. Thuan (University of Virginia)
The mass of dark matter in this galaxy cluster is great enough to distort and bend light — the squiggly, twisted galaxies aren’t actually that shape, they just appear that way from Earth’s vantage point. NASA, ESA, M. Postman (STScI), and the CLASH Team
The sharpest infrared picture of the center of the Milky Way show’s our galaxy’s core, where massive stars are born. NASA, ESA, and Q.D. Wang (University of Massachusetts, Amherst)
This spiral galaxy 28 million light years from Earth seen edge on is called the Sombrero Galaxy. NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

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