Hubble's Fountain of Youth

By Phil Plait | April 21, 2009 11:22 am

On April 24, 1990, the Space Shuttle Discovery roared into orbit, carrying with it the most famous observatory of all time: the Hubble Space Telescope.

To commemorate this 19th anniversary, the Hubble folks have released this wonderful image of interacting galaxies called Arp 194.

Click to embiggen, or go here to hugely brobdingnangify.

There’s quite a bit going on here! First, take a look at the upper spiral galaxy, located 600 million light years from Earth. If you look at the top spiral arm, you’ll see another galaxy nucleus lying along it; it’s the bright orange patch above and to the right of the big spiral’s center. It looks like that’s the remains of a galaxy that is in the process of colliding with the big spiral (the other bright galaxy — the compact spiral directly to the right of the big spiral’s center — appears to be a background galaxy, coincidentally seen nearby).

This collision has drawn out a vast 100,000 light-year-long streamer of gas from the big spiral, which is fairly obvious as the blue ribbon in the middle of the image. This long tongue of gas has collapsed to form millions of stars; the most massive and most luminous are blue, which is why the streamer is that color. Eventually these stars will explode, and then that arm will really light up!

Hubble image of Arp 194, detail

Interestingly, there is a galaxy below the interacting pair. Is it associated with them? It seems like it should be, since that blue stream of gas and stars looks like it goes right into that galaxy.

But in fact you have to be careful here. In the zoomed image on the right, you can see the lower galaxy and the bottom of the streamer. I’ve indicated three spots in the image; see how they’re redder and darker? That’s because there’s tons of dust there, material which absorbs and reddens the light from stars behind it.

Dust is associated with young stars, so it’s clear this dust must be part of that stretched arm of gas and stars from the upper galaxy. But the dust is seen in front of the lower galaxy. If the lower galaxy were interacting with the ones above it, you might expect that dust to be mixed in with the galaxy. So it’s possible the lower galaxy is somewhat farther away, unaffiliated with the other galaxies, and untouched by the cosmic disaster. But it’s also possible it’s just a wee bit farther away, still part of the group, but has still managed to remain unscathed.

Oh, one more thing: check out the top of that smaller image. See that one star that’s glowing an evil red? That’s probably an evolved star, a red supergiant. If it is, that means it may very well be the next star to go in this scene; red supergiants are stars at the very ends of their lives. It may have less than a million years before it detonates and becomes a supernova, and will outshine the combined light of the galaxies around it.

Or it may just be a very distant background galaxy. I doubt it; the positioning of it right in the middle of that streamer is awfully suspicious. But stranger things have happened!

After nearly two decades in orbit around the Earth, Hubble is still in a position to amaze me. I worked on three different Hubble cameras for a total of a decade, and I have seen literally thousands of images returned by the spaceborne observatory. Yet, even with all that, it still delivers pictures of the Universe that surprise, fascinate, and enthrall me. It’s amazing to think of how much space is out there, how many incredible objects swim in its vastness, and how well we can probe the nature of them.

Hubble will be serviced one final time by the Shuttle Atlantis, due to lift off May 12. It will almost certainly continue for several more years after that, but inevitably the time will come to shut the old bird down. By then, though, we’ll have new telescopes, like the James Webb Space Telescope, ready to step in.

What wonders will they show us?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (50)

  1. Brian Schlosser

    Man, it seems like just yesterday that the wags were making jokes about Hubble needing dark glasses and a white cane… It seemed as if the whole project was going to be a dud. But what a comeback!

    I hope some way can be found to bring Hubble back to the Smithsonian when its finally decomissioned. The thought of it burning up… it saddens me.

  2. IVAN3MAN

    Err… ” brobdingnangify”?! What’s wrong with “embiggen”?! Oh, I see… the former has fifteen letters, but the latter only has a lousy 8 letters!

  3. Cheyenne

    @Brian – Saddens me too but it’s too heavy to bring back. It would be too risky. Besides, a fiery re-entry is kind of cool. Going out in a blaze of glory isn’t such a bad thing.

  4. Tom

    What do you suppose the bright orange spot about 1:30 from the losing galaxy’s nucleus is, a foreground star?

  5. Said it before. Will say it again (ad nauseum?). I loves me some galaxies!

  6. Savino

    Phiiiiiiiiil… wheres the GLiese 581d post?

  7. Love to see this in 3D. (red/blue glasses on standby…)

  8. Quiet Desperation

    Love to see this in 3D.

    Can we even get a stereo pair at 600 million light years?

    I’m guessing the best we could do was two images six months apart. Is the diameter of the Earth’s orbit enough?

  9. firemancarl

    So it’s possible the lower galaxy is somewhat farther away, unaffiliated with the other galaxies, and untouched by the cosmic disaster

    I dunno, on the embiggenated version, it looks like the galaxy at the bottom has been disturbed. Instead of seeing “neat” arms they look like there is a huge smear in the entire galaxy.

    I wonder of that blue jet is fracking with the galaxy or, did it brush with the 2 galaxies in need of a personal injury lawyer?

  10. Quiet Desperation

    I hope some way can be found to bring Hubble back to the Smithsonian when its finally decomissioned.

    It’s possible, but it would be very expensive. If the Shuttle specs don’t allow a landing with this thing on board, you’d have to design, build and launch a craft that could grab the Hubble, secure it safely, perform a deorbit burn, protect it from re-entry and touchdown softly.

  11. alfaniner

    It’s just the Universe saying “Huh?”

  12. Brian Schlosser

    Ok, so its a pipe dream to bring Hubble back… Sigh… But yeah, I guess a fiery death can be fitting. Like a Viking!

    Hmmm… except the Vikings are frozen on Mars…

    Hey, that makes me wonder: if the Mars Reconaissance Orbiter was able to image the smaller Phoenix lander, couldn’t it observe the Viking landers on Chryse and Utopia? THAT would be AMAZING to see…

  13. Brian Schlosser

    I really oughta Google this stuff BEFORE I ask these questions… Like I’M going to think of something to take pictures of BEFORE NASA does…

    Viking 2, in situ

  14. Hoonser

    That’s clearly God doing something very rude!

  15. Dave

    Simple moon-based telescopes could do wonders for astronomy. Just think, 3 telescopes placed equidistant from each other near the moon’s equator could provide a stable platform to perform even more magic than Hubble.

    The Gov’t wants to go back to the moon for some reason. Here’s a useful reason.

  16. Tom,
    Yes, that is most likely a foreground red dwarf. Those darn things are everywhere! :)

  17. Adam

    It’s possible, but it would be very expensive. If the Shuttle specs don’t allow a landing with this thing on board, you’d have to design, build and launch a craft that could grab the Hubble, secure it safely, perform a deorbit burn, protect it from re-entry and touchdown softly.

    I’m sure there’s a way. How about this? wrapping it in a waterproof/heatproof sack. Strap on a box with basic guidance sensors, communication and 3 rockets. Give the box a parachute it can deploy. Then use the rockets to decelerate it and drop it in the ocean.

  18. Souzaphone711

    I hate to be the jerk that points out the error, but Hubble went up April 24th 1990. I was born that exact date so i know it quite well, and it irks me considerably to see it wrong. The Hubble Space Telescope website confirms what I have said, with the following link: http://hubblesite.org/the_telescope/hubble_essentials/

  19. The shuttle astronauts could remove a piece of it as a souvineer for display. Although actually getting shuttle astronauts to the Hubble to grab a piece isn’t much less expensive than getting them there to service it.

    I don’t see why they just can’t keep repairing and servicing it over and over. We don’t decommission earthbound observatories when better are built. There’s always more research a tool like that can be used for. There’s always a long line of astronomers waiting to get some Hubble time. That won’t change after the James Webb is launched.

  20. Croobie

    Very cool!

    Off topic: Have you seen this and/or know more info?
    http://news.aol.com/article/astronaut-says-aliens-have-visited-earth/437766?icid=main|aimzones|dl1|link3|http%3A%2F%2Fnews.aol.com%2Farticle%2Fastronaut-says-aliens-have-visited-earth%2F437766

  21. # Richard Hendricks Says:
    Tom,
    Yes, that is most likely a foreground red dwarf. Those darn things are everywhere! :)

    Notably on the BBC…..

    Smeg!

    J/P=?

  22. Lyr

    What beautiful images!

  23. There are certainly readers of this blog and possibly posters that weren’t even born when Hubble was launched. That is awesome.

    We probably can’t bring her back but why burn her up? Couldn’t we boost her to a higher stable orbit? She’d be there forever. Smithsonian in space so to speak.

  24. MadScientist

    @Shane: What’s the point of keeping junk in space? For numerous practical purposes it’s best to bring Hubble down when it’s no longer serviceable, but to do that requires some fuel on board.

    I’m not sure about the politics of naming the space observatories though; how can Jim Webb be compared with Edwin Hubble? Regardless of the name, I hope they get the bird safely into orbit.

  25. @MadScientist: What’s the point in keeping junk anywhere (museums)? Space is pretty big. I’m sure there’s room for a few historically significant and popular museum pieces.

  26. Oops! I fixed the date. That’ll learn me for writing too quickly.

  27. alfaniner

    For some reason I keep hearing “Riddle me this!”

  28. Rick J

    Don’t worry about the date. The Hubble site says it is located in Cepheus. It’s really in Ursa Major. Oops.

  29. Spectroscope

    The BA :

    Oh, one more thing: check out the top of that smaller image. See that one star that’s glowing an evil red? That’s probably an evolved star, a red supergiant. If it is, that means it may very well be the next star to go in this scene; red supergiants are stars at the very ends of their lives. It may have less than a million years before it detonates and becomes a supernova, and will outshine the combined light of the galaxies around it.

    Ture enough but, mind you, blue supergiants can go be at theend of their lives & go supernova too.

    Remember Supernova 1987 A in the Large Magellanic Cloud whuich came from the blue supergiant star Sanduleak (or Sk) -69 202? ;-)

  30. We actually have a pretty good track record for building spacecraft that exceed their expected operational lifetimes. All the more to celebrate.

  31. Flying sardines

    @ Shane : (April 21st, 2009 at 9:07 pm)

    @MadScientist: What’s the point in keeping junk anywhere (museums)? Space is pretty big. I’m sure there’s room for a few historically significant and popular museum pieces.

    Museums are great for educating, informing and allowing us all to get in touch with a whole tonne of things. They are like art galleries in enabling everyone to appreciate, learn about and enjoy what they contain.

    Personally, I love museums and wish more power to them! :-)

    “Junk” like beauty is in the eye of the beholder. ;-)

  32. Spectroscope

    Typos. Sigh.

    That’s meant to read :

    [on the red supergiant going supernovae possibility]

    True enough. Mind you, blue supergiants can ALSO be at the end of their lives & go supernova too.

    Remember Supernova 1987 A in the Large Magellanic Cloud which came from the blue supergiant star Sanduleak (or Sk) -69 202? Other examples also exist incl. Wolf-Rayet stars being expected to detonate as supernovae and I think I recall reading about a reddish-yellow supergiant going supernova soon after SN1987 A too. So NOT all type II supernovae arise from red supergiants. Even if many do.

    I’m looking forward to Eta Carinae, Betelgeux or Antares exploding myself!
    ;-)

  33. Spectroscope

    @ Savino Says: (April 21st, 2009 at 12:13 pm)

    Phiiiiiiiiil… wheres the GLiese 581d post?

    Seconded by me – I heard something on my local midday news about two more exoplanets round the star “Gliese” (they dropped the numerals) one the smallest earthlike planet abut tooclose and hot and another intherightzone but too masive. That it?

  34. T_U_T

    I’m sure there’s a way. How about this? wrapping it in a waterproof/heatproof sack. Strap on a box with basic guidance sensors, communication and 3 rockets. Give the box a parachute it can deploy. Then use the rockets to decelerate it and drop it in the ocean.

    why to deorbit it at all ? Just boost it to orbit high enough to stay there, and leave it there till we come again and either repair it, or, with a better craft, we bring it safely to earth.

  35. Flying sardines

    Could we send the HST to the Moon putting it in Lunar orbit?

    Would that have its advantages?

    Like others here, I find the thought of the Hubble just burning up a waste and very saddening.

    I’d like the HST saved and treasured when its scientific use ends – and I’d like its scientific use continued as long as possible.

  36. StevoRaine

    Phil Plait said : (April 21st, 2009 at 9:57 pm)

    Oops! I fixed the date. That’ll learn me for writing too quickly.

    Yup. I do that all the flippin’ time too. :-(

    Unfortunately I can’t correct my posts here like Phil can.

    Plesae, oh please BA, when, o when, are we going tobe able to edit and corect our posts here? Or even just preview them beforehand?

    I know I should learn to type better and check more carefully but somehow .. the mistakes always become apparent just after I’ve clicked ‘submit’ & not befroe. *Sigh* :-(

  37. StevoR

    Arrrgh! You see what I mean that was meant to read :

    Phil Plait said : (April 21st, 2009 at 9:57 pm)

    Oops! I fixed the date. That’ll learn me for writing too quickly.

    Yup. I do that all the flippin’ time too.

    Unfortunately I can’t correct my posts here like Phil can.

    Please, oh please BA, when, o when, are we going to be able to edit and correct our posts here?

    Or even just preview them beforehand?

    I know I should learn to type better and check more carefully but somehow .. the mistakes always become apparent just after I’ve clicked ’submit’ & not before. *Sigh* :-(

    ***

    I know a few little typos aren’t that big a deal but still it just bugs me.

    & if the typos don’t get you the italics or whatever html coding will. :-(

    PS. Could we get the italics, bold, & underline buttons to click on here instead of html coedes please? Could we also get a list here somewhere of how to do all these html-y things & emoticons etc ..?

    I love your blog BA, <3 absolutely love it! But having all these things would make it justso-oo much better yet! ;-)

    PS. StevoR = StevoRaine, I also use a couple of other tags occassionally (eg. 'Plutonium being from Pluto' for variety and when it best suits. Hope this is okay with everyone.

  38. Peter B

    Flying Sardines said: “Could we send the HST to the Moon putting it in Lunar orbit?

    “Would that have its advantages?”

    Not really. Firstly, the amount of fuel needed to boost it from Earth orbit to near Earth escape velocity is considerable. Then you’d need more fuel to brake it into lunar orbit. Finally, orbits around the Moon are unstable, due to (IIRC) mass concentrations in the Moon itself, and interaction with the Earth. So we’d be unlikely to get much use of it before it created its own crater on the Moon rather than burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

    “Like others here, I find the thought of the Hubble just burning up a waste and very saddening.”

    I agree too. But I don’t think the alternatives are that practical.

    “I’d like the HST saved and treasured when its scientific use ends – and I’d like its scientific use continued as long as possible.”

    The problem is that Hubble servicing missions are very expensive (and I understand actually quite dangerous), and I doubt NASA would willingly take money from other worthy projects.

    Theoretically Hubble could be boosted into a higher orbit. But in practical terms what would that achieve? How many people could be expected to visit it in the next century? I’d suggest the most likely answer is none. So it doesn’t really cut it as a museum exhibit.

    On that basis, the only logical thing left to do is deorbit it as safely as possible. If that sounds uninspirational, remember that Jim Lovell was disappointed there was no way to save “Aquarius”, the LM which kept him and his crewmates alive on Apollo 13. If ever there was a spacecraft which deserved to be put in a museum for people to admire, it was “Aquarius”.

  39. Flying sardines

    @ Peter B :

    Yup, I guess so. But still …

    I know it costs a lot yet still surely with all the money thrown around elsewehere (Cough, Iraq war, cough, Corporate bail-outs, cough) you’d imagine they could spare a relative little for raising the HST’s orbit to give it a century or so longer… & in that time who knows how things may change.

    Still I must agree with you when it comes to the Apollo 13 LEM too. Quite a different craft & significance but also a magnificent, historical piece of engineering genius.

  40. Flying sardines

    Italics meant to finish at the end of the brackets there. Sigh.

  41. dwhisper

    Very nice picture, but sadly, this post kills my iPhone browser

  42. Greg in Austin

    I just noticed this looks like a giant celestial question mark!

    Is it a sign?

    8)

  43. Hugo

    I love the line, “…red supergiants are stars at the very ends of their lives. It may have less than a million years before it detonates and becomes a supernova.”

    I guess this proves my ignorance (and inability to grasp time on a universal scale). I thought, “Near the end of its life. So that’s, what? 2-5 years, tops?”

    But a million? He he!

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