Through the Eye of Hubble: Infinitely Wondrous


On a quest to perform groundbreaking observations, and provide data for numerous more groundbreaking discoveries, the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) set out in the spring of 1990. Over 1,000,000 observations, over 18,000 papers published based on data from the HST, and 6 service missions later; the Hubble still orbits above us, its 3rd decade of service passed. The first of NASA’s “Great Observatories” series, the HST’s primary focus is on conducting observations on objects emitting light in the Ultra-Violet, Visible, and near-Infrared ranges. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) selects the targets for the HST’s observations while also processes the data obtained. Meanwhile, the Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) is in charge of controlling the telescope.

With a position to overcome many of the effects of the Earth’s atmosphere on ground observations of the skies, the HST has contributed greatly to furthering our knowledge of the universe. A specialty here is Ultra-Violet observations; which are near impossible to make from the ground due to the Ozone layer. Dating the age of the universe and the rate at which it is expanding, mapping the known extent of dark matter, discoveries made within our solar system as well as extrasolar planets, and of course, providing the public with the most amazing views of the universe are some of the countless discoveries of the HST.

Hubble, Peering into the Nooks of Home

The radiation energy range that was observable by the Hubble Space Telescope was perfect for it to function as a meteorology station in orbit. Dust storms, atmospheric gas and wind storms, as well as polar clouds were some of these. Furthermore, the observations made of the asteroid belt beyond Mars gave us interesting sights of collisions and formations. Discovering the objects of the Kuiper belt too are some of the discoveries made by the HST when observing our solar system.

Figure 01: The dust storm that took place in the Southern hemisphere of Mars and engulfed the whole planet within a span of a few months is seen contrasted here. Observed at near opposition of the sun, the clouds of the poles contrast greatly even in the midst of the storm.
Figure 02: Observing objects in the asteroid belt and the phenomenon occurring within it is another corner of our solar system that the Hubble looked at. Scientists believe that the X-shaped debris field at the forefront of the stream of dust is these remnants. Further observations have shown asteroids with multiple dust streams (P/2013 P5), as well as disintegrating asteroids (P/2013 R3). (NASA, ESA and D. Jewitt (UCLA))
Figure 03: On many occasions, the HST is also used to aid in missions regarding the planets of our solar system. This data is vital to plan launches of probes and rovers. First photographed in 2005, here we see Pluto and its moons, interesting members of the Kuiper belt. This Hubble photograph was instrumental in the planning of the New Horizons mission, where detailed images of the moons were taken. Further discoveries include the dwarf planet, Makemake, and its moons as well. (NASA, ESA, H. Weaver (JHU/APL), A. Stern (SwRI), and the HST Pluto Companion Search Team)

The Sci-Fi Dreams of Alien Planets: Proven!

Figure 04: Some of the resolved images of nearly 200 protoplanetary discs (proplyds) discovered in the Orion nebula. (NASA, ESA, M. Robberto (Space Telescope Science Institute/ESA) and the HST Orion Treasury Project Team)

Combining billions of pixels together, the Hubble Space Telescope pieced together a composite image of the rather bright and grandiose Orion Nebula. Close analysis of the stars in this nebula paved the way for astronomers to understand how planets are formed. Protoplanetary Discs are dense clouds of dust and gas that surround relatively new stars. Observing those found in the Orion Nebula, astronomers observed “gaps” in the discs as shown in the figure below.

Figure 05: Here we see the photographed image (left) and its graphic representation (right) of the proplyd around the star TW Hydrae. The theory is that these “gaps” formed due to the gravitational fields of unseen planets. As they keep packing dust to closely dense distributions, a lane is carved out in the disc and a gap forms.

Using measurements obtained from the HST, we were able to determine the atmospheric composition of an extrasolar planet for the first time ever. Then on, the Hubble has come to the discovery of organic compounds in the atmospheres of distant extrasolar planets. Astronomers used the observatory to obtain the first visible-light image of an extrasolar planet, Fomalhaut b too. The HST also holds the prestige of being the first-ever to map the weather of an exoplanet.

Figure 06: In 2008, the HST observed Fomalhaut b, an extrasolar planet traveling in a highly elongated orbit around the star Fomalhaut.

At the Center of the Giant: M87’s Shifted Clouds

A growing field with more hypotheses than concrete proof; hypotheses such that a supermassive black hole existed at the center of the galaxy Messier-87 was proved by the HST.

Figure 07: A schematic diagram of velocity measurements of a rotating disk of hot gas in the core of active galaxy M87 (observed by HST’s Faint Object Spectrograph and Wide Field Planetary Camera 2).

By measuring the velocities at various points in the gas disk at the center of M87, astronomers concluded that it was actually a spiral; and one that was spinning at an incredibly high rate. This phenomenon is a direct attribute to the presence of a large gravitational “sink”. The fact that the stars present in the galaxy were more densely found near the center added weight to the claim. Over the years, clearer observations have led to the calculation of the mass of this object as well, proving beyond the shadow of a doubt that a supermassive black hole occupied the center of M87.

A massive black hole is actually the conservative explanation for what we see in M87. If it’s not a black hole, it must be something even harder to understand with our present theories of astrophysics.

Dr. Richard Harms, Applied Research Corporation, Maryland.

Figure 08: A jet of subatomic particles streaming out from the center of M87 due to the supermassive black hole present. (NASA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA))

This and further observations on other galaxies provided evidence that massive black holes exist at the core of almost all galaxies; and that it was a great possibility that they formed alongside the galaxy itself. Data from the HST also showed a correspondence between the mass of a black hole, and that of the stars in the central bulge of its host galaxy.

Hubble Sets to Map the Darkness of the Universe

Soon, the Hubble Space Telescope set out on the COSMOS (Cosmic Evolution Survey) Survey; the largest all-sky survey that the observatory undertook. Scientists theorized that the universe evolved with the formation of filaments of dark matter prior to ordinary matter. These filaments clustered together and provided the mass necessary for structures to collapse, and for galaxies to form. In other words, a scaffolding for the universe to grow. In the survey, HST took the measurements of the subtle distortions of the shapes of approximately half a million galaxies.

These distortions were used to reconstruct the intervening mass distributions of dark matter between the galaxies that were situated along the line of sight of the observatory; a method we refer to as weak gravitational lensing. The result is a 3D map of the distribution of dark matter in the universe; giving proof that ordinary matter accumulated in the densest concentrations of dark matter.

Figure 09: 3D distribution of dark matter in the universe with three slices of time. The map below is made by combining slices across the universe. The three axes of the box correspond to sky position (in right ascension and declination), and distance from the Earth increasing from left to right (as measured by cosmological redshift).

Hubble’s View: The Jaw-dropping Splendor of Our Universe

Apart from making groundbreaking discoveries, the Hubble Space Telescope is also responsible for some of the most awe-inspiring images of celestial objects. Released from time to time through their website as well as on social media platforms, releases on the anniversary of the launch of the HST are very awaited. Here are some of the most iconic images by the observatory.

Figure 10: 2014 HUBBLE WFC3/UVIS IMAGE OF M16: The “Pillars of Creation”, found in the Eagle Nebula. Stars are born deep within this structural landmark in the skies, a distinguishable view of a vast region, glowing with the constant formation of stars and radiated gas streams (NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)).
Figure 11: HERBIG-HARO JET HH 24: Found in our Milky Way, the Orion B molecular cloud complex appears through the dark clouds like a “double-bladed lightsaber” in the cosmic infinity. This protostar is feeding off of the molecular Hydrogen in the gas disc surrounding it, shooting off superheated material in opposite directions along its axis of rotation (NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)).
Figure 12: BUBBLE NEBULA (NGC 7635): Released on the 26th Anniversary, we can see the star that forms this nebula positioned a bit off-center at a 10 o’clock position. Heated gas emits from it, sweeping up the colder gas clouds around the star, forming the outer edge of the bubble (NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)).

With many a year ahead of its lifespan, the Hubble Space Telescope aims to pair up with other observatories that are to be launched in the future. Looking at the many discoveries made and images captured is both inspirational and humbling. For more, you can visit the website of the Hubble Space Telescope or check out the resources provided as e-books too!



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