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Hubble Turns Twenty

Carina Nebula Star-forming Pillars and Herbig-Haro Objects with Jets. Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Livio and the Hubble 20th Anniversary Team (STScI)

My interest in astronomy dates back to the comet Hale-Bopp. I was a freshman in college, and for nearly all of that March I walked across campus with my eyes on the comet’s streak in the sky. Even on the brightest afternoon, Hale-Bopp’s head and two tails were visible.

For a few months that spring, I wanted to be an astronomer. Having a professor who discovered supernovae helped, too. And then my worlds collided: I took a Shakespeare course, and realized that I more easily remembered Hamlet’s “I am too much in the sun” than the speed at which light travels, or how many astronomical units the Earth is from Mars.

Literature prevailed, but thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope, I’ve been able to keep an eye on deep space. On Saturday, the telescope celebrated its 20th anniversary.

Credit: NASA

Hubble was launched on April 24, 1990. Since then, the telescope has captured more than half a million images of 30,000 celestial objects, some as far as 10 billion light-years away.

The sombrero galaxy in infrared light. Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

One of the benefits to Hubble’s space-based position is its unencumbered view. Unlike land-based telescopes, it doesn’t contend with refraction and some distortion caused by earth’s atmosphere. One of my favorite Hubble images is actually a team effort with two other telescopes: The W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, and the space-based Chandra X-ray Observatory. The brightest objects in this image are stars—everything else, galaxies.

Galaxy Cluster MACS J0717. Credit: NASA, ESA, CXC, C. Ma, H. Ebeling, and E. Barrett (University of Hawaii/IfA), et al., and STScI.

Hubble has captured nebulae towers three-light years tall, galaxies on collision courses, and stars in various stages of their turbulent lives. It has helped astronomers to better understand the properties of black holes, dark energy (and how it effects the universe’s expansion rate), and dark matter (which may be galaxies’ unseen scaffolding). Hubble has even captured candid moments in our own solar system, like when Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 slammed into Jupiter. In February 2009, the telescope captured four of Saturn’s moons in transit.

Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
Acknowledgment: M.H. Wong (STScI/UC Berkeley) and C. Go (Philippines)

Which brings me to a book I recently worked on here at Chronicle, The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Weird Junior Edition. For one of the entries on space, I interviewed Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at SETI Institute and a self-proclaimed alien hunter. Seth scours the sky for extra-terrestrial life with the use of extremely powerful radio telescopes. He says that SETI’s telescopes could pick up a cell phone ringing… on Jupiter.

And then there is Hamlet. (After all, it was that play—and others—that exerted quite the gravitational pull on me.) I revisited it this weekend, and saw that the very first line, “Who’s there?” echoes Seth’s work at SETI and Hubble’s twenty-year journey.

To Hamlet, the earth is “a sterile promontory”—“the air… this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestic roof fretted with golden fire.” Everything appears to him “foul” and “pestilent.” He has lost all his mirth. In Hamlet’s mind’s eye, man, the world, the entire “paragon of animals,” are nothing more than a “quintessence of dust.”

Star Cluster NGC 2074 in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Credit: NASA, ESA and M. Livio (STScl).

Hamlet doesn’t have a Hubble to free him from the prison that is Denmark and his own head, to turn his attention past the “overhanging firmament” that just reinforces his ceaseless frets. We do. I like knowing that Hubble does some cosmic seeing for us. It captures visions of our universe’s history so that astronomers can make informed predictions about its future. The Hubble Space Telescope is all about the expansive view. It shows us that our understanding of space and experience doesn’t have to be limited, or limiting.

So, for me, Hubble’s legacy is what has been beamed back to us in pictures of potential.

Perhaps within the galaxies Hubble has snapped are planets orbiting suns—planets with their own Hamlets and their own stories. For the past 20 years, we’ve had the chance to view the complex cosmic patchwork of what lurks in deep space. Now we know that there is always more to be seen—always more to consider. Like Seth at SETI, I like to imagine that there is other intelligent life in space—that there are beings looking toward our own Milky Way and hoping that, someday, they just might catch a glimpse of us.

Naomi Kirsten
Assistant Editor

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1 Comment

  • Elise K. April 28, 2010 at 11:51 am

    Naomi, I remember your brief but serious bout with considering becoming an astronomer in college. Your passion spilled into the cosmos and influenced me to take the same astronomy class in college just a few years later. I remember the way we used to talk over coffee at Caffe Strada about the lessons of Alex Filippenko. Thank you for your blog! I am going to explore some images of Hubble right now.

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