New images from the recently refurbished Hubble Space Telescope show that the 19-year-old observatory is now more powerful than ever.
Ever since astronauts traveled to the orbiting observatory in May and did a variety of upgrades, scientists have been testing and calibrating the telescope. At a press conference at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., officials released some images to demonstrate that the new and improved Hubble is working as planned.
The pictures show awe-inspiring cosmic scenes such as a "butterfly" nebula around a dying star, the stunningly colorful core of a giant star cluster, a quintet of galaxies, and a so-called pillar of creation where stars are being born.
A New Beginning
"We are giddy with the quality of the data that we have with this new telescope," says Heidi Hammel, senior research scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.
"You can already see remarkable differences between what we're seeing now and what we saw with the prior instrumentation," says David Leckrone, senior project scientist for Hubble at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.
For example, he says, the backgrounds of some images are suddenly full of "all this stuff. There are marvelous details" that went unnoticed before.
Scientists already have plans to use the rejuvenated Hubble to study Kuiper belt objects, like Pluto, as well as the atmospheres of planets around other stars.
"Let there be no doubt that this is truly Hubble's new beginning," says Ed Weiler, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate.
Hard-Earned Repairs Pay Off
Hubble has upgraded in space five times. The most recent servicing mission almost didn't happen. It was cancelled after the space shuttle Columbia disaster, because NASA officials felt going to Hubble again might be too risky. But astronomers fought the decision, hoping to keep Hubble alive. And in the end, the mission went forward.
During the final repair mission, astronauts did five tricky spacewalks. They installed a new camera and a fancy new spectrograph, and fixed two instruments that were never even designed to be repaired in space. The astronauts had to undo dozens of little screws and reach into the guts of those gadgets to replace electronic boards.
The astronauts who did all these fixes say they were amazed by the new pictures.
"I was just, 'Wow,' " says John Grunsfeld, an astrophysicist and astronaut who has gone on three Hubble repair missions. "And it was the kind of wow, the hair standing up on the back of my neck, to see the potential of this telescope now."
Astronaut Mike Massimino says that when they closed up Hubble for the last time and came home, they thought the mission had gone well. "It's really great to see the evidence that it actually does work. And those images just look great," Massimino says. "And I am so grateful that it is working and I didn't break anything."
NASA has no plans to repair Hubble again. The hope is that it will continue working until at least 2014, when the agency plans to launch the James Webb Space Telescope, a new large space observatory.