April 24 marked the 30th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, one of the most ambitious and influential astronomical projects in human history. The telescope, which sits in orbit around Earth, has taken some of the most breathtaking images of space ever seen and has captured the public’s imagination like no other.
To celebrate this remarkable telescope and its invaluable contributions to science, we’ve selected 10 of the most beautiful images it has taken over its three-decade-long life for your perusal and enjoyment.
When a star dies and explodes in an epic supernova, the ejected material forms intricate shapes that can last for thousands of years. The Veil Nebula is one such supernova remnant, formed when a star 20 times the size of our sun exploded around 8,000 years ago. The nebula is named for its delicate, draped shape, captured by Hubble in six images that were turned into this mosaic.
At the heart of our galaxy, like most galaxies, lies an enormous monster — a supermassive black hole. As black holes absorb everything that comes close to them, even light, they are extremely difficult to see (although not impossible). In this Hubble image of the center of the Milky Way, located over 27,000 light-years away from Earth, the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A* is located right in the middle, although it’s not visible.
The beautiful glow at the center of this image comes from just one enormous young star, called Herschel 36, which is 32 times larger and 200,000 times brighter than our sun. It is so bright that it not only illuminates the entire Lagoon Nebula in which is resides, but also shapes it into elaborate ridges and valleys. As the star generates huge amounts of ultraviolet radiation, its stellar winds carve through the dust and gas around it to form the stunning structure of the nebula.
This mosaic image shows one part of the Monkey Head Nebula in which new stars are being born. As dust and gas coalesce under the force of gravity, it forms into clumps that, if they are dense enough, can eventually form the building blocks of new stars. New stars are bright and hot, illuminating the remaining dust in the nebula, as seen in the center and to the right of this image.
This stunning view is one of our galaxy’s closest neighbors, the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC). It is a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way, meaning it orbits around the edge of our galaxy. The SMC is a very small galaxy, classified as a dwarf galaxy, but even so, it is visible to the naked eye from certain places on Earth because it is so bright. This particular image is a composite, combining the visible light image from Hubble with infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope and X-ray data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory.
When astronomers first observed the Tarantula Nebula, they thought it was one cluster. But later observations showed it is in fact two clusters that are in the process of merging. One of the clusters is around 1 million years older than the other, and the merging has resulted in an unusual distribution of low-mass stars — the distribution is not spherical, as would have been expected, but elongated in a way that suggests a merger. This region has been producing stars for the last 25 million years.
This famous Hubble image shows the fantastic nebula Werterlund 2, which is host to some of the hottest and brightest stars in our galaxy. Some of these stars are so large that they unleash hurricane-force stellar winds that carve shapes into the dust and gas of the nebula. The cluster is very young at only 2 million years old, so its stars have not yet had time to disperse, providing astronomers with the opportunity to learn about star formation by studying stars in the region in which they are born.
Hubble may be most well-known for capturing images of distant objects, but it sometimes captures images within our own solar system as well. This portrait of the planet Jupiter is the most detailed to date, with more intense colors than previous images that show off the bands of clouds that move around the planet and give it its distinct striped appearance. You can also see the bright Great Red Spot, an enormous storm that has been raging for centuries. Astronomers still aren’t sure why the spot is red, when other storms on the planet appear brown or white.
This striking structure is known for obvious reasons as the Bubble Nebula, and it’s absolutely enormous — over 7 light-years across. It is formed by a super-hot star that is 45 times more massive than our sun and produces stellar winds which travel at over 4 million miles per hour. It is these winds that push cold gas outward to form the surface of the bubble. This beautiful structure may not last for long, however, as the star at its center burns so brightly that it will only live for a short time, and will likely explode in a supernova in the next 10 million to 20 million years.
Hubble’s most famous target remains as stunning now as it was when it was first captured 25 years ago. The Pillars of Creation, as the image is known, shows a part of the Eagle Nebula in which finger-like structures tower five light-years tall, illuminated by the ultraviolet light from a group of young, massive stars that are located above the image frame. The Pillars were captured a second time, 20 years later, using the more detailed Wide Field Camera 3, and they have also been imaged in infrared to show the glittering stars which surround them.
Having been through its share of upgrades and fixes over the years, the Hubble is still operational and could continue working for another 10 or 20 years. NASA is working on a successor to Hubble, called the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be even more powerful and able to see even further into the universe. The James Webb project won’t launch until next year at the earliest, however, so until then, we’ll continue to revere Hubble as an incredible achievement and one of the most productive scientific instruments ever built.
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