12 Iconic Images From Hubble Space Telescope

Hubble Space Telescope
Hubble Space Telescope. NASA/ESA/STScI

In its years on orbit, Hubble Space Telescope has shown the world gorgeous cosmic wonders, ranging from views of the planets in our own solar system to distant planets, stars, and galaxies as far as the telescope can detect. Scientists continually use this orbiting observatory to look at objects ranging in distance from the solar system out to the limits of the observatory universe.

Key Takeaways: Hubble Space Telescope

  • Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990 and has worked for nearly 30 years as the premier orbiting telescope.
  • Over the years, the telescope has collected data and images from nearly every part of the sky.
  • Images from HST are providing deep insight into the nature of star birth, stardeath, galaxy formation, and more.

Hubble's Solar System

Hubble Solar System images
Four of the solar system objects observed by Hubble Space Telescope. Carolyn Collins Petersen

The exploration of our solar system with Hubble Space Telescope offers astronomers a chance to obtain clear, sharp images of distant worlds, and to watch them change over time. For example, the observatory has taken many images of Mars and documented the seasonally changing appearance of the red planet over time. Likewise, it has watched distant Saturn (upper right), measured its atmosphere and charted the motions of its moons. Jupiter (lower right) is also a favorite target because of its ever-changing cloud decks and its moons.

From time to time, comets make their appearance as they orbit the Sun. Hubble is often used to take images and data of these icy objects and the clouds of particles and dust that stream out behind them.

A comet as seen by Hubble Space Telescope
Comet Siding Spring C/2013 A1 as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope in March 2014. NASA/STScI 

This comet (called Comet Siding Spring, after the observatory that was used to discover it) has an orbit that takes it past Mars before it gets close to the Sun. Hubble was used to get images of jets sprouting out from the comet as it warmed up during its close approach to our star.

A Starbirth Nursery Called the Monkey Head

The Monkey Head Nebula
A starbirth region observed by Hubble Space Telescope.


Hubble Space Telescope celebrated 24 years of success in April 2014 with an infrared image of a star-birth nursery that lies about 6,400 light-years away. The cloud of gas and dust in the image is part of a larger cloud (nebula) nicknamed the Monkey Head Nebula (astronomers list it as NGC 2174 or Sharpless Sh2-252). 

Massive newborn stars (on the right) are lighting up and blasting away at the nebula. This causes the gases to glow and the dust to radiate heat, which is visible to Hubble's infrared-sensitive instruments.

Studying star-birth regions like this one and others gives astronomers a better idea of how stars and their birthplaces evolve over time. There are many clouds of gas and dust in the Milky Way and other galaxies seen by the telescope. Understanding the processes that take place in all of them help produce useful models that can be used to understand such clouds throughout the universe. The process of star birth is one that, until the construction of advanced observatories such as Hubble Space Telescope, the Spitzer Space Telescope, and a new collection of ground-based observatories, scientists knew little about. Today, they are peering into star-birth nurseries across the Milky Way Galaxy and beyond.

Hubble Space Telescope shows two colliding galaxies in optical and infrared light showing regions of star birth created during the chaos of the collision. NASA/ESA/STScI

Hubble's Fabulous Orion Nebula

Hubble's Orion Nebula
A Hubble Space Telescope view of the Orion Nebula. NASA/ESA/STScI

Hubble has peered often at the Orion Nebula many times. This vast cloud complex, which lies some 1,500 light-years away, is another favorite among stargazers. It's visible to the naked eye under good, dark sky conditions, and easily visible through binoculars or a telescope.

The nebula's central region is a turbulent stellar nursery, home to 3,000 stars of various sizes and ages. Hubble also looked at it in infrared light, which uncovered many stars that had never been seen before because they were hidden in clouds of gas and dust. 

The entire star formation history of Orion is in this one field of view: arcs, blobs, pillars, and rings of dust that resemble cigar smoke all tell part of the story. Stellar winds from young stars collide with the surrounding nebula. Some small clouds are stars with planetary systems forming around them. The hot young stars are ionizing (energizing) the clouds with their ultraviolet light, and their stellar winds are blowing the dust away. Some of the cloud pillars in the nebula may be hiding protostars and other young stellar objects. There are also dozens of brown dwarfs here. These are objects too hot to be planets but too cool to be stars.

Protoplanetary disks
A set of protoplanetary disks in the Orion Nebula. The largest is bigger than our solar system, and contains a newborn stars. It's possible that planets are forming there, too. NASA/ESA/STScI

Astronomers suspect that our Sun was born in a cloud of gas and dust similar to this one about 4.5 billion years ago. So, in a sense, when we look at the Orion Nebula, we're looking at our star's baby pictures.

Evaporating Gaseous Globules

The Pillars of Creation image
Hubble Space Telescope view of the Pillars of Creation. NASA/ESA/STScI

In 1995, Hubble Space Telescope scientists released one of the most popular images ever created with the observatory. The "Pillars of Creation" caught people's imaginations as it gave a close-up view of fascinating features in a star-birth region.

This eerie, dark structure is one of the pillars in the image. It's a column of cool molecular hydrogen gas (two atoms of hydrogen in each molecule) mixed with dust, a region that astronomers consider a likely place for stars to form. There are newly forming stars embedded inside finger-like protrusions extending from the top of the nebula. Each "fingertip" is somewhat larger than our own solar system.

This pillar is slowly eroding away under the destructive effect of ultraviolet light. As it disappears, small globules of especially dense gas embedded in the cloud are being uncovered. These are "EGGs" — short for "Evaporating Gaseous Globules." Forming inside at least some of the EGGs are embryonic stars. These may or may not go on to become fully fledged stars. That's because the EGGs stop growing if the cloud is eaten away by the nearby stars. That chokes off the supply of gas the newborns need to grow. 

Some protostars grow massive enough to start the hydrogen-burning process that powers stars. These stellar EGGS are found, appropriately enough, in the "Eagle Nebula" (also called M16), a nearby star-forming region that lies about 6,500 light-years away in the constellation Serpens.

The Ring Nebula

Hubble's Ring
The Ring Nebula as seen by Hubble Space Telescope. NASA/ESA/STScI

The Ring Nebula is a long-time favorite among amateur astronomers. But when Hubble Space Telescope looked at this expanding cloud of gas and dust from a dying star, it gave us a brand new, 3D view. Because this planetary nebula is tilted toward Earth, the Hubble images allow us to view it head-on. The blue structure in the image comes from a shell of glowing helium gas, and the blue-ish white dot in the center is the dying star, which is heating the gas and making it glow. The Ring Nebula was originally several times more massive than the Sun, and its death throes are very similar to what our Sun will go through beginning in a few billion years.

Farther out are dark knots of dense gas and some dust, formed when expanding hot gas pushed into cool gas ejected previously by the doomed star. The outermost scallops of gas were ejected when the star was just starting the death process. All of this gas was expelled by the central star about 4,000 years ago.

The nebula is expanding at more than 43,000 miles an hour, but Hubble data showed that the center is moving faster than the expansion of the main ring. The Ring Nebula will continue to expand for another 10,000 years, a short phase in the lifetime of the star. The nebula will become fainter and fainter until it dissipates into the interstellar medium.

The Cat's Eye Nebula

The Cat's Eye Nebula
The Cat's Eye planetary nebula, as seen by Hubble Space Telescope. NASA/ESA/STScI

When Hubble Space Telescope returned this image of the planetary nebula NGC 6543, also known as the Cat's Eye Nebula, many people noticed that it looked eerily like the "Eye of Sauron" from the Lord of the Rings films. Like Sauron, the Cat's Eye Nebula is complex. Astronomers know that it's the last gasp of a dying star similar to our Sun that has ejected its outer atmosphere and swelled up to become a red giant. What was left of the star shrank to become a white dwarf, which remains behind lighting up the surrounding clouds. 

This Hubble image shows 11 concentric rings of material, shells of gas blowing away from the star. Each one is actually a spherical bubble that is visible head-on. 

Every 1,500 years or so, the Cat's Eye Nebula ejected a mass of material, forming the rings that fit together like nesting dolls. Astronomers have several ideas about what happened to cause these "pulsations". Cycles of magnetic activity somewhat similar to the Sun's sunspot cycle could have set them off or the action of one or more companion stars orbiting around the dying star could have stirred things up. Some alternative theories include that the star itself is pulsating or that the material was ejected smoothly, but something caused waves in the gas and dust clouds as they moved away. 

Although Hubble has observed this fascinating object several times to capture a time sequence of motion in the clouds, it will take many more observations before astronomers completely understand what's happening in the Cat's Eye Nebula. 

Alpha Centauri

The heart of M13.
The heart of the globular cluster M13, as seen by Hubble Space Telescope. NASA/ESA/STScI

Stars travel the universe in many configurations. The Sun moves through the Milky Way Galaxy as a loner. The nearest star system, the Alpha Centauri system, has three stars: Alpha Centauri AB (which is a binary pair) and Proxima Centauri, a loner that is the closest star to us. It lies 4.1 light-years away. Other stars live in open clusters or moving associations. Still others exist in globular clusters, giant collections of thousands of stars huddled into a small region of space.

This is a Hubble Space Telescope view of the heart of the globular cluster M13. It lies about 25,000 light-years away and the entire cluster has more than 100,000 stars packed into a region 150 light-years across. Astronomers used Hubble to look at the central region of this cluster to learn more about the types of stars that exist there and how they interact with each other. In these crowded conditions, some stars slam into each other. The result is a "blue straggler" star. There are also very reddish-looking stars, which are ancient red giants. The blue-white stars are hot and massive.

Astronomers are particularly interested in studying globulars like Alpha Centauri because they contain some of the oldest stars in the universe. Many formed well before the Milky Way Galaxy did, and can tell us more about the history of the galaxy.

The Pleiades Star Cluster

The Pleiades as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. Space Telescope Science Institute

The Pleiades star cluster, often known as the "Seven Sisters", "the Mother Hen and her Chicks", or "The Seven Camels" is one of the most popular stargazing objects in the sky. Observers can spot this pretty little open cluster with the naked eye or very easily through a telescope.

There are more than a thousand stars in the cluster, and most are relatively young (about 100 million years old) and many are several times the mass of the Sun. For comparison, our Sun is about 4.5 billion years old and is of average mass.

Astronomers think the Pleiades formed in a cloud of gas and dust similar to the Orion Nebula. The cluster will probably exist for another 250 million years before its stars begin wandering apart as they travel through the galaxy.

Hubble Space Telescope observation of the Pleiades helped solve a mystery that kept scientists guessing for almost a decade: just how far away is this cluster? The earliest astronomers to study the cluster estimated that it was about 400-500 light-years away. But in 1997, the Hipparcos satellite measured its distance at about 385 light-years. Other measurements and calculations gave different distances, and so astronomers used Hubble to settle the question. Its measurements showed that the cluster is very likely around 440 light-years away. This is an important distance to measure accurately because it can help astronomers build a "distance ladder"using measurements to nearby objects.

The Crab Nebula

The Crab Nebula
Hubble Space Telescope's view of the Crab Nebula supernova remnant. NASA/ESA/STScI

Another stargazing favorite, the Crab Nebula is not visible to the naked eye, and requires a good-quality telescope. What we see in this Hubble photograph is the remains of a massive star that blew itself up in a supernova explosion that was first seen on Earth in the year 1054 A.D. A few people made note of the apparition in our skies — the Chinese, Native Americans, and the Japanese, but there are remarkably few other records of it.

The Crab Nebula lies some 6,500 light-years from Earth. The star that blew up and created it was many times more massive than the Sun. What's left behind is an expanding cloud of gas and dust, and a neutron star, which is the crushed, extremely dense core of the former star.

The colors in this Hubble Space Telescope image of the Crab Nebula indicate the different elements that were expelled during the explosion. Blue in the filaments in the outer part of the nebula represents neutral oxygen, green is singly-ionized sulfur, and red indicates doubly-ionized oxygen.

The orange filaments are the tattered remains of the star and consist mostly of hydrogen. The rapidly spinning neutron star embedded in the center of the nebula is the dynamo powering the nebula's eerie interior bluish glow. The blue light comes from electrons whirling at nearly the speed of light around magnetic field lines from the neutron star. Like a lighthouse, the neutron star ejects twin beams of radiation that appear to pulse 30 times a second due to the neutron star's rotation.

The Large Magellanic Cloud

A different kind of supernova remnant
Hubble's view of a supernova remnant called N 63A. NASA/ESA/STScI

Sometimes a Hubble image of an object looks like a piece of abstract art. That's the case with this view of a supernova remnant called N 63A. It lies in the Large Magellanic Cloud, which is a neighboring galaxy to the Milky Way and lies about 160,000 light-years away. 

This supernova remnant lies in a star-forming region and the star that blew up to create this abstract celestial vision was a tremendously massive one. Such stars go through their nuclear fuel very quickly and explode as supernovae a few tens or hundreds of millions of years after they form. This one was 50 times the mass of the Sun, and throughout its short life, its strong stellar wind blew out to space, creating a "bubble" in the interstellar gas and dust surrounding the star. 

Eventually, the expanding, fast-moving shock waves and debris from this supernova will collide with a nearby cloud of gas and dust. When that happens, it could very well trigger a new round of star and planet formation in the cloud. 

Astronomers have used Hubble Space Telescope to study this supernova remnant, using X-ray telescopes and radio telescopes to map the expanding gases and the bubble of gas surrounding the explosion site.

A Triplet of Galaxies

Three galaxes seen by Hubble Space Telescope
Three galaxies studied by Hubble Space Telescope. NASA/ESA/STScI

One of Hubble Space Telescope's tasks is to deliver images and data about distant objects in the universe. That means it has sent back data that forms the basis for many gorgeous images of galaxies, those massive stellar cities lie mostly at great distances from us.

These three galaxies, called Arp 274, appear to be partially overlapping, although in reality, they may be at somewhat different distances. Two of these are spiral galaxies, and the third (to the far left) has a very compact structure, but appears to have regions where stars are forming (the blue and red areas) and what looks like vestigial spiral arms.

These three galaxies lie about 400 million light-years away from us in a galaxy cluster called the Virgo Cluster, where two spirals are forming new stars throughout their spiral arms (the blue knots). The galaxy in the middle appears to have a bar through its central area.

Galaxies are spread throughout the universe in clusters and superclusters, and astronomers have found the most distant at more than 13.1 billion light-years away. They appear to us as they would have looked when the universe was very young.

A Cross-Section of the Universe

Hubble Cross-section of galaxies
A very recent image taken with Hubble Space Telescope showing distant galaxies in the universe. NASA/ESA/STScI

One of Hubble's most exciting discoveries was that the universe consists of galaxies as far as we can see. The variety of galaxies ranges from the familiar spiral shapes (like our Milky Way) to the irregularly shaped clouds of light (like the Magellanic Clouds). They arrayed in larger structures such as clusters and superclusters.

Most of the galaxies in this Hubble image lie about 5 billion light-years away, but some of them are much further and depict times when the universe was a lot younger. Hubble’s cross-section of the universe also contains distorted images of galaxies in the very distant background.

The image looks distorted due to a process called gravitational lensing, an extremely valuable technique in astronomy for studying very distant objects. This lensing is caused by the bending of the space-time continuum by massive galaxies lying close to our line of sight to more distant objects. Light traveling through a gravitational lens from more distant objects is "bent" which produces a distorted image of the objects. Astronomers can gather valuable information about those more distant galaxies to learn about conditions earlier in the universe.

One of the lens systems visible here appears as a small loop in the center of the image. It features two foreground galaxies distorting and amplifying the light of a distant quasar. The light from this bright disc of matter, which is currently falling into a black hole, has taken nine billion years to reach us — two thirds of the age of the universe.


  • Garner, Rob. “Hubble Science and Discoveries.” NASA, NASA, 14 Sept. 2017, www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/hubble-s-discoveries.
  • “Home.” STScI, www.stsci.edu/.
  • “HubbleSite - Out of the Ordinary...out of This World.” HubbleSite - The Telescope - Hubble Essentials - About Edwin Hubble, hubblesite.org/.
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Petersen, Carolyn Collins. "12 Iconic Images From Hubble Space Telescope." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/cosmic-beauty-at-your-fingertips-3072101. Petersen, Carolyn Collins. (2021, February 16). 12 Iconic Images From Hubble Space Telescope. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/cosmic-beauty-at-your-fingertips-3072101 Petersen, Carolyn Collins. "12 Iconic Images From Hubble Space Telescope." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/cosmic-beauty-at-your-fingertips-3072101 (accessed May 28, 2023).