Get out the birthday candles and the tissues — this baby is all grown up. NASA's beloved Hubble Space Telescope officially turns 25 this week, marking a successful two and a half decades of incredible photography and scientific analysis. With all of the amazing images in the agency's archives, it's no surprise that everyone's getting a little verklempt at the thought. Over the years, the telescope has not only given astronomers the ability to see into our distant past, it's broken ground for new planetary research that could someday lead to even bigger windows into space exploration.
"As well as revolutionizing astrophysics, the first major optical observatory in space ... has brought the excitement of scientific discovery into millions of homes," wrote Mario Livio, head of the Institute Science Division at the Space Telescope Science Institute, in the journal Nature this week. "Ask people to name a telescope and most will probably say 'Hubble.'"
First launched on the back of the space shuttle Discovery on April 24, 1990, the telescope suffered a few early stumbles before getting it just right.
During its initial phases, NASA imaging teams receiving the first photos taken by Hubble were perplexed by the blurry, out-of-focus images the telescope was sending back. The problem? The outer edges of Hubble's 94-inch primary mirror (the main light-gathering source) had been ground down 2.2 microns too far — "about one-50th the thickness of a human hair," reported NASA scientists.
By December 1993, astronauts aboard the space shuttle Endeavor had corrected the problems plaguing Hubble's imaging systems and in January 1994, the first clear photographs of the Messier 100 galaxy — some 55 million light years from earth — came into view.
Since that time, the telescope has captured some of the most groundbreaking images of our universe to date, including one particularly important image that forced the world to step back and reconsider our place in the cosmos.
Supernova Remnant 0509-67.5
This eerie pink bubble is actually made up of the remains of a star that once resided in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a relatively tiny galaxy around 160,000 light years away. As the star's core began to run out of fuel, it began collapsing in on itself, compacting into what is known as a white dwarf star, an incredibly dense body approximately the size of earth but with the same mass. Scientists now believe that an impact with a neighboring white dwarf star produced an explosion of dust and gas so violent that it would have been visible to the naked eye here on earth, leaving behind only a ghostly reminder of what once resided in its place.
But it's not finished making waves just yet. "This bubble of gas is 23 light-years across and growing," explain NASA scientists on the official Hubble 25th Anniversary page, indicating that the leftovers are expanding at a rate of 11 million miles per hour.
Hubble's famous sherbet-hued photo of the Orion Nebula isn't just pretty to look at — it's yielded some important evidence as well.
"By gazing at star-forming regions such as the Orion Nebula, Hubble was able to show that protoplanetary disks of gas and dust are ubiquitous around many young stars," explained Space.com in 2011. "This reinforces the idea that alien worlds are common in the universe."
Protoplanetary disks are formed when the material inside a nebula begins to collapse in on itself. As it compacts, the now-dense gases and debris form the beginnings of a star, with the surrounding "disk" of gas lingering to create surrounding planets and satellites and eventually becoming what is known as a planetary system.
Planetary Nebula NGC 6302
Sometimes referred to as the "Butterfly Nebula," this oddity was formed when a dying star five times the mass of the sun collapsed, ejecting large flows of superheated gas in its final death throes. According to NASA scientists, the butterfly wings themselves span a distance of two full light years. If you placed our sun at one end, the nebula would stretch nearly half the distance to our nearest neighboring star, Alpha Centauri. In terms that humans can comprehend, if the Voyager 2 spacecraft, traveling at just over 38,000 mph, were to try and reach that star, it would take another 300,000 years from its current position on the outskirts of our solar system. (In other words, if you're going to try and reach Alpha Centauri, you'll definitely want to schedule a few bathroom breaks.)
Inside the Butterfly Nebula, the expelled gases, which top out at around 36,000 degrees Fahrenheit, are traveling at speeds of up to 600,000 mph (i.e. if placed in a tunnel from the earth to the moon, it would only take the debris 24 minutes to get from one side to the other). The discovery of the fascinating NGC 6302 has led researchers to explore the complex final stages of stellar evolution.
Auroras On Saturn
In the spring of 2013, Hubble captured these beautiful images of the faint auroras of Saturn's north pole. "Saturn was caught during a very dynamic light show," said European Space Agency officials in a statement that May. "Some of the bursts of light seen shooting around Saturn’s polar regions traveled more than three times faster than the speed of the gas giant’s roughly 10-hour rotation period!"
"Saturn has a long, comet-like magnetic tail known as a magnetotail — as do Mercury, Jupiter, Uranus, Neptune and Earth," added NASA officials, citing new research into the magnetosphere and how planetary auroras fluctuate and develop over time.
The Highest Resolution Image Of The Andromeda Galaxy Ever Captured
In January 2015, the science world was rocked when Hubble experts released the highest resolution image of neighboring galaxy Andromeda ever captured. At 2.5 million light years from Earth, the galaxy is already one of the brightest objects in the night sky (you can even see it without a telescope). So when the new photos of Andromeda's arm debuted with clarity so perfect you could zoom in and pick out individual star clusters in an otherwise blurry cloud, the world was rightly ecstatic.
"It's like photographing a beach and resolving individual grains of sand," explained NASA officials in a statement. "And, there are lots of stars in this sweeping view — over 100 million, with some of them in thousands of star clusters seen embedded in the disk."
Try the zoomable image for yourself and feel free to freak out with the rest of us.
The Oldest Star In The Galaxy
In March 2013, Hubble team members were finally able to place a D.O.B. on one particularly ancient star in the Milky Way galaxy. The Methuselah star (lovingly referred to as HD 140283) has thrown astronomers for a serious loop in recent years. Early estimates placed the star at around 14.5 to 16 billion years old — which is a very real problem, considering that the estimated age of the universe is around 13.8 billion years.
By recalculating the star's distance, fuel-burning capacity, and its intrinsic brightness, scientists were finally able to place a definitive age on Methuselah — about the same age as the universe itself, once upper age limits were in place.
"Put all of those ingredients together and you get an age of 14.5 billion years, with a residual uncertainty that makes the star's age compatible with the age of the universe," said astronomer Howard Bond, of the Space Telescope Science Institute, in a statement that month. "This is the best star in the sky to do precision age calculations by virtue of its closeness and brightness."
The Hubble Ultra Deep Field
After digging through a series of images taken between 2002 and 2012, Hubble scientists made the decision to take a closer look to see if there was anything they had missed. Zooming in on a darkened corner in the southern-hemisphere constellation Fornax, they found exactly what they were looking for. The now famous Hubble Ultra Deep Field isn't just another photo of a galaxy cluster — it's much more than that.
Inside the dark patch of sky, where astronomers had only expected the inky depth of space, sat nearly 10,000 new galaxies. In the above image, the deep red points of light indicate galaxies formed when the universe was only around 800 million years young.
Since the release of The Ultra Deep Field image, NASA scientists have also photographed what is known as the Extreme Deep Field.
"The image covers an area less than a tenth of the width of the full Moon, making it just a 30 millionth of the whole sky," they explained in a statement. "Yet even in this tiny fraction of the sky, the long exposure reveals about 5500 galaxies, some of them so distant that we see them when the Universe was less than 5 percent of its current age — [some] of the most distant objects ever identified."
If you were looking for a revolutionary image in the annals of space history, this is it.
Images: NASA, ESA/Hubble and the Hubble Heritage Team