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Hubble's latest upgrade produces stunning results

The aging NASA space telescope's latest -- and probably last -- repairs were a success, as striking new images attest.

September 10, 2009|Washington Post

WASHINGTON — NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, rebuilt by astronauts, has demonstrated its new powers with a stunning set of images of exploding stars, a stellar nursery, colliding galaxies and the lensing effect of a galactic cluster nearly halfway across the universe.

Hubble was repaired and refurbished this year in a series of tense spacewalks by astronauts on the space shuttle Atlantis, all of whom attended a packed briefing Wednesday morning at NASA headquarters. They fixed two broken instruments and installed a new camera, a spectrograph, new batteries and gyroscopes.

Months later, everything appears to be working without a hitch.

NASA made sure that the newest Hubble images packed some visual punch. The most dramatic images come from Wide Field Camera 3, installed by the astronauts after a protracted struggle with a stuck bolt that threatened to keep the camera from ever being used.

One image shows Planetary Nebula NGC 6302, more commonly known as the Butterfly Nebula. It's a dying star ejecting two "wings" of gas. For the last two millenniums the gas has been spreading outward, and the "butterfly" is now trillions of miles in diameter.

"It portends what our solar system is going to look like in about 4 billion years," NASA's head of science, Ed Weiler, said in an interview. "We're seeing the sun's death in 4 billion years."

Another image shows a cluster of galaxies known as Stephan's Quintet. Two of the galaxies are melding like fried eggs plopped together in a pan. Two more will eventually join them to form a single, colossal galaxy.

The Hubble also made complementary observations, one in optical light and one in infrared light, of a billowing star-forming region in the Carina Nebula, which is about 7,500 light-years from Earth. The optical image shows a glowing pillar of dust. The infrared shot penetrates the dust -- peeling back the curtain, in a sense -- to show what's inside. There are four primary stars baking inside. One, in the center, emits two jets of gas, like a plane with dual vapor trails.

"You see how this gives you new eyes," astrophysicist Mario Livio of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore said after the briefing. "We see this incredible resolution in the visible, and then we see the same thing with the same kind of resolution in the infrared. That blew me away."

Another new Hubble image demonstrates the peculiar effects of gravitational lensing. The newly repaired Advanced Camera for Surveys peered 5 billion light-years across the cosmos at a cluster of galaxies. Their combined gravity acts like a lens to magnify a background galaxy that is so distorted and elongated by the effect that it has taken on a shape that inspired astronomers to call it "the Dragon."

The Hubble was launched in 1990 but initially suffered from an aberration in the primary mirror that left images fuzzy. A repair mission three years later fixed the problem, and four more servicing missions have kept the telescope functioning despite the corrosive environment of low-Earth orbit.

No more repair missions are planned, however. It is unclear how long the Hubble can function before its instruments, gyroscopes and batteries fail, but NASA hopes to milk it for at least five more years.

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