Hubble Space Telescope: On the Job Since 1990

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Imaging the Cosmos, One Orbit at a Time

A starbirth cavern in the Small Magellanic Cloud. STScI/NASA/ESA/Chandra X-Ray Observatory

This month the Hubble Space Telescope celebrates its 25th year on orbit. It was launched on April 24, 1990, and had mirror focus problems in its early years. Astronomers managed to retrofit it with "contact lenses" to sharpen the view. Today, Hubble continues to explore the cosmos deeper than any other telescope before it. In the story Cosmic Beauty, we explore some of Hubble's most beautiful visions. Let's take a look at five more iconic Hubble images.  

Hubble Space Telescope data and images are often combined with data from other telescopes, such as the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, which is sensitive to ultraviolet light. when Chandra and HST look at the same object, astronomers get a multi-wavelength view of it, and each wavelength tells a different story about what's happening. In 2013, Chandra made the first detection of x-ray emission from young solar-type stars in a satellite galaxy to the Milky Way called the Small Magellanic cloud. X-rays from these young stars reveal active magnetic fields, which allow astronomers to figure out a star's rotation rate and motions of hot gas in its interior.

The image here is a composite of Hubble Space Telescope "visible light" data and Chandra x-ray emissions. Ultraviolet radiation from the stars is eating away at the cloud of gas and dust where the stars were born.

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A 3D Look at a Dying Star

The Helix Nebula as seen by HST and CTIO; bottom image is a 3D computer model of this dying star and its nebula. STScI/CTIO/NASA/ESA

Hubble astronomers combined HST data with images from the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile to come up with this dazzling view of a planetary nebula called the "Helix". From here on Earth, we look "through" the sphere of gases expanding away from the dying Sun-like star. Using data about the gas cloud, astronomers were able to construct a 3D model of what the planetary nebula looks like if you could view it from a different angle. 

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The Amateur Observer's Favorite

The Horsehead Nebula, seen by HST in infrared light. STScI/NASA/ESA

The Horsehead Nebula is one of the most sought-after observing targets for amateur astronomers with good backyard-type telescopes (and larger). It's not a bright nebula, but it is very distinctive-looking. Hubble Space Telescope took a look at it in 2001, giving an almost 3D view of this dark cloud. The nebula itself is being lit from behind by brighter background stars that may well be eroding the cloud away. Embedded within this starbirth créche, and particularly in the top left of the head are most certainly the seedlings of baby stars—protostars—that will ignite and someday ignite and become fully fledged stars. 

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A comet, Stars and More!

Comet ISON seems to float against a backdrop of stars and distant galaxies. STScI/NASA/ESA

In 2013, Hubble Space Telescope turned its gaze toward the fast-moving Comet ISON and captured a nice view of its coma and tail. Not only did astronomers get a nice eyefull of the comet, but if you look more closely at the image, you can spot a number of galaxies, each many millions or millions of light-years away. The stars are closer, but many thousands of times farther away than the comet was at the time (353 million miles). The comet was headed to a close encounter with the Sun in late November 2013. Instead of rounding the Sun and heading to the outer solar system, however, ISON broke apart. So, this Hubble view is a snapshot in time of an object that no longer exists.  

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A Galaxy Tango Creates a Rose

Two distant galaxies gravitationally bound together and spurring bursts of starbirth in the process. STScI/NASA/ESA

To celebrate its 21st anniversary on orbit, Hubble Space Telescope imaged a pair of galaxies locked in a gravitational dance with each other. The resulting stresses on the galaxies is distorting their shapes—creating what looks to us like a rose. There's a large spiral galaxy, called UGC 1810, with a disk that is distorted into a rose-like shape by the gravitational tidal pull of the companion galaxy below it. The smaller one is called UGC 1813.

A swath of blue jewel-like points across the top is the combined light from clusters of intensely bright and hot young blue stars that have been created as a result of shock waves from this galaxy collision (which is an important part of galaxy formation and evolution) compressing the gas clouds and triggering star formation. The smaller, nearly edge-on companion shows distinct signs of intense star formation at its nucleus, perhaps triggered by the encounter with the companion galaxy. This grouping, called Arp 273, lies about 300 million light-years away from Earth, in the direction of the constellation Andromeda. 

If you want to explore more Hubble visions, head over to, and celebrate the 25th year of this very successful observatory.