Hubble. Is. Back!

By Phil Plait | September 9, 2009 9:46 am

After a long and nervous wait for those of us stuck on Earth, the world’s most famous observatory is back on the job! Behold!

Click to embiggen. Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team


That’s NGC 6217, a spiral galaxy as seen by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys, a workhorse detector on Hubble that went on the fritz in January 2007. But when the STS-125 brought the Space Shuttle Atlantis to Hubble, it also carried two new cameras and the tools to fix two older, busted ones, including ACS. After a daring series of repairs and upgrades, Hubble is now back up to speed.

This ACS image is gorgeous. NGC 6217 is relatively close by, at a distance of roughly 80 million light years (note that some early press said it was 6 million light years away, which is incorrect). The gas and stars in the middle form an exquisite rectangular bar across the core due to complicated gravitational interactions, and you can easily pick out huge numbers of glowing pink star forming areas, where stars are being born in prodigious quantities. And even from this vast distance — 800 quintillion kilometers (500 quintillion miles) — Hubble can still pick out individual stars in the spiral arms. These are the biggest, baddest, and brightest ones, the stars that will someday explode as monstrous supernovae… and you can rest assured astronomers will be using Hubble or its successors to observe them when they do.

But there’s more! Check out this deep image of the cluster Omega Centauri:

Wow! This picture is from the newly installed Wide Field Camera 3, the third generation such camera on Hubble. The image shows a portion of the globular cluster Omega Centauri, a giant ball of millions of stars that orbits the Milky Way. This image alone shows about 100,000 stars at all stages of evolution, from slowly glowing yellow to furiously churning red — stars at the ends of their lives, about to fizzle out into tiny, hot white dwarfs — and finally sapphire blue stars, helium-rich objects also nearing cosmic senescence.

But of all the gorgeous images released today, there is one that is very, very special to me:

It may not look like much to you, but to me that picture sings. As far as the science goes, it’s a spectrum (the light from an object sliced up into thousands of individual colors) of the titanic star Eta Carinae, a monster 100 times the mass of the Sun — the upper limit for how big a star can be without tearing itself apart — that will some day soon explode as a supernova, and may even be a gamma-ray burst. This image shows the light from the star dissected, displaying the velocity and chemical composition of the massive gas clouds surrounding the star: huge lobes of material ejected in a violent outburst from the star over a hundred years ago. Spectra like this let us keep tabs on Eta Car, monitoring it for changes that will gives us clues on how this bizarre and frankly scary star is behaving.

But to me, as important as the science and knowledge gained from this data are, it’s the mere fact of its existence that is so important.

A prelaunch STIS in 1997.

The image is from the Space Telescope Imaging Spectroscope, a camera I worked on for more than six years. I helped calibrate and test STIS as it was built, and I watched as it roared into space aboard Discovery in 1997. For three more years I worked on the incredible data from STIS, displayed on my computer screen, as this camera tool the pulse of the Universe with spectra and images of objects as close as asteroids in our solar system to galaxies 10 billion light years away. I worked on data that laid out to me the chemical composition, temperature, and distance of stars, galaxies, gas clouds, gamma-ray bursts, and so much more. I sweated blood on STIS, and so when it suffered a debilitating short in 2004 I was pretty upset. It was like losing a member of the family.

STIS sat silent for five years, orbiting the Earth in Hubble’s instrument bay. But in May 2009, astronauts were able to repair the shorted computer board on STIS during a very dramatic space walk. After that I heard nothing for months, which was making me nuts.

But no longer. I’m not at all ashamed to say that when I saw this STIS graphic of Eta Car, I choked up, and there were — oh hell, there still are as I write this — tears in my eyes. I’m so proud of the team that built STIS, the hundreds of people who used it, the incredible people at NASA, and the men and women of our astronaut corps who risked their lives to make sure our eye on the sky is clear, clean, updated, and razor-focused.

With its quiver full of new and newly repaired cameras, as well as shiny new gyroscopes and other critical pieces of equipment, we’ll be seeing more and better-than-ever scientific images and spectra from Hubble for many, many more years to come.


Comments (78)

  1. Shawn R. Hill

    Awesome news! Logan and I can’t wait to see more images from the new and repaired cameras! Great work NASA!

  2. Patrick

    I think my favorite part of the pictures of galaxies such as 6217 is not the subject itself, but the fact that there are other galaxies waaaaay off in the distance behind it. It really puts things in perspective far more than the HUDF can in my opinion.

  3. Great write up Dr. Plait! Simply wonderful stuff.

    So, any refinement on if Eta Carinae is pointed at us or not? I got an email saying that it’s due to go supernova on December 21st, 2012. 😉 😛

  4. Atlantis was on STS-125 when she serviced Hubble, STS-127 was an International Space Station assembly flight flown by Endeavour.

  5. knobody

    “my god, it’s full of stars!”

  6. Nathanial Burton-Bradford

    Looks as though the Hubble web site is being hammered at the mo’…

    Hardly surprising – these images are AMAZING…

    Go Go Hubble!!!

  7. I *soooo* want a poster-sized version of 6217 for my wall. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have any poster-quality images of that one. Perhaps I’ll pick another one and use that. (WinkFlash, coincidentally, has 40% off poster prints until September 15th.)

  8. Aline

    Awesome, awesome, awesome. Did I mention, awesome. My mouth is stuck open, and infected by your wonder and happiness, also smiling!

  9. So if eta carinae goes supernova, will we have to re-letter all the stars in the constellation?

  10. John

    Now that the press release is out, I can report to whomever I like that the grism mode of WFC3 works just fine too 😉

  11. Phil, “of the titanic star Eta Carinae, a monster 100 times the mass of the Sun”.

    Isn’t it way bigger than that? Just checking.

  12. There’s a “print” version of 6217 at (link not included to avoid moderation delay), that’s pretty nice. It’s not the full 16 MPixels of ACS, but that’s probably just how big the galaxy is at the ACS plate scale.

    But oh man it makes a nice computer background. I put it on mine right away, and I think everyone else should do the same. Big kudos to John Grunsfeld and Drew Feustel for gettin’ the fix in. Y’all know what they had to do, right? Cut off an aluminum grid, remove 32 screws without losing any, unlock and pull out 4 circuit cards (one of which was dangerously close to being blocked by a strut), put in a new CCD Electronics Box, drive in the 4 circuit cards in the new box, clamp a new power supply onto the handrail, unplug ACS so they could put a Y-adapter in to power the old ACS stuff and the new power supply, and connect the new supply to the new CEB. All in two hours, while wearing space suits, in a corner of the aft shroud where they don’t quite fit. And made it look easy.

    Yeah, I might have worked on ACS repair, why do you ask?

  13. Brett G

    Wow…stunning. Absolutely stunning.

  14. DrFlimmer

    Awesome! Good to see Hubble back in SUCH a configuration :)

  15. You think you’re fooling us with your airbrush and Christmas lights on the inside of the lid over the world????

    Kidding. These are cool.

  16. KTR


    That we can reach out and see it? Amazing.

  17. Kevin

    Is it… is it wrong to get emotional, choked up & teary-eyed when seeing these new images, and thinking about how great the stuff will be in the future?

    (wiping a tear….) :)


    Phil, there’s a typo at paragraph 10, in lines 6-7:

    … as this camera tool the pulse of the Universe with spectra and images of…

    I think that should be took, not “tool”.

  19. Trebuchet

    And another typo: I think STIS is for “Space Telescope Imaging Spectroscope”, not “Imagine Spectroscope”. Although it clearly inspires Phil’s imagination.

    Wonderful pictures. Hubble is one of mankind’s great achievements; and its trials and tribulations have only made it more so.

  20. Sili

    The real Greatest Show on Earth! (wink goes here)

    Gongrats, Phil, and thank you.

  21. T.E.L.

    Omega Centauri, in the words of Herman Munster, looks “all Christmasy”.

  22. We now return you to our regularly scheduled…WOWZA!!!!!!!

    That Eta Carinae picture is one of my all-time favorites. Hokey smokes! If that were a frame grab from some space movie, I’d be going, “Fakey!!!!!”

  23. Quiet Desperation

    The only problem with Hubble is that I’m all jaded now.

    To paraphrase Chief Brody in Jaws, “We need a bigger scope.” 😉

  24. Stephen

    I think the image of the Eta Carina nebula
    shows the Hindu diety Ganesha looking to the right, beckoning us with an ET-like finger.

  25. I just saw some before and after shots over on Universe Today.

  26. mike burkhart

    If I was’nt siting in front of this computer on planet Earth I’d think I was on the starship Enterprise at the places looking out the viewscreen . OPPs I forgot the Galaxys are to far to be reached by the federation starship even at warp 9

  27. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    You can’t fool me Phil. That second pic is a close up of your Christmas tree. I just cut off the top corners and notched the sides to figure that one out.

  28. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    Nothing out Hubbles Hubble.

  29. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    Lots to do out there. Let’s go out and play.

  30. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    Take all of man’s scientific Knowledge. Look at the second picture. And, tell me how much we know, compared with what we have yet to explore. Is that job security or what? Just a tiny Hubble piece of the Universe.

  31. Rick Ohnsman

    Your post also taught me two new words:

    Woot –

    Woot originated as a hacker term for root (or administrative) access to a computer. However, with the term as coincides with the gamer term, “w00t”.

    “w00t” was originally an trunicated expression common among players of Dungeons and Dragons tabletop role-playing game for “Wow, loot!” Thus the term passed into the net-culture where it thrived in video game communities and lost its original meaning and is used simply as a term of excitement.
    “I defeated the dark sorcerer! Woot!”

    and – Embiggen


    A perfectly cromulent word.
    To make bigger, to make larger, to make size increase.
    A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.

  32. Keith Thompson

    In the Omega Centauri image, it looks to me like a lot of the stars are lined up in strings or filaments. Is that some real phenomenon, or is my brain just inventing nonexistent patterns from random data?

  33. Joe Meils


    Thank you so much for posting these pics! A friend of mine from Italy worked on an awful, awful little movie in the late 1970’s called “Starcrash.” He was the special effects tech on the miniatures for that movie. Over the years, he has taken no end of grief from critics about how he portrayed his starfields in that film as brightly multi-colored. (Among other things that a great many people are critical about, concerning that film…) I’ve forwarded the Hubble pic of Omega Centuri as his vindication!

  34. firemancarl

    Me too Phil. I love Carinea! It’s in my top 5 astro photos thingys to look at. Nice to see the work to install the new camera was worth it!

  35. T.E.L.

    Joe Meils,

    I remember Starcrash. Yeah, it was a real cheapo flick; but I thought the exaggeratedly colorful starfields were one of its few saving graces.

  36. Phil, I worked at Ball until last year — a great place to work, and they do so many amazing things like the STIS (and other Hubble instruments, and Deep Impact, and etc….).

  37. Kendall

    I notice when viewing the center of the globular cluster that a large number of stars are arranged in arc patterns. Is that because of their proximity in such a dense area? It seems a hard pattern to miss and not completely random. Or is it just me?

  38. 80 million light years away. And a light year is, uhm, 6 trillion miles. So that’s like half a sextillion miles. In technical terms, it’s farther than the grocery store.

    So the light is 80 million years old. So most of the big resolvable stars have, in some sense, already exploded and the light hasn’t made it here yet.

    I really like the STIS graphic. It hints at what a spectroscope is all about.

    The HST is clearly at the top of it’s game. It doesn’t get any better than this. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that the primary mirror still has a spherical aberration – which was never “fixed” for instruments like the Fine Guidance Sensors. And yet, the FGS has been used to detect proper motion – side to side wobble of a star under the influence of an orbiting object. And while we’re on that note, here’s a quiz. True or False: the HST has the largest diameter primary mirror of any space telescope…

    … False. Hershel is slightly bigger. This is great news in it’s own right.

  39. The image of Omega Centauri is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen! Simply awe inspiring!

  40. I think the most touching thing about the last mission to the Hubble was when the Astronauts working on it hugged it before they set it free. :) I’m so glad to see it back up and running.

  41. Old Geezer

    Not nitpicking; just trying to learn here. You refer to “huge lobes of material ejected in a violent outburst from the star over a hundred years ago”. Shouldn’t this be 80 million, 100 years ago? Aren’t we talking about the span of time since we observed the phenomenon rather than when it actually occurred? For all we know, all of the things you have predicted have not only happened, but did so multiple millions of years ago(?)

  42. bigjohn756

    Don’t you just get sick and tired of looking at all these pictures? All there is to see is a bunch of galaxies, stars and clouds. They all look about the same as one another. I guess that God didn’t have much creative energy when He painted the Celestial Sphere.

  43. bigjohn756

    BTW, I have only a couple of dozen carefully selected Hubble images that I cycle through to decorate my desktop. I guess there will be many more to choose from coming along now.

  44. @ Joe Meils:

    Star Crash!!!!! With Caroline Munro as a sexy astro-babe in a leather bikini spacesuit! Oh, and some cool stop-motion robots! Heh!

  45. Why do we need multiple universes when the one we live in is so breathtakingly beautiful?

  46. Evil Merodach

    I wonder how much the Milky Way resembles that barred spiral? With all the new bluish stars I imagine NGC 6217 has bit more activity going on than we do. Or is it false colors I’m seeing?

    And the view of Omega Centauri is breathtaking. It never looked like that in my telescope.

    Could the “missing dwarf galaxy” problem be accounted for if globular clusters are the relic cores of these galaxies?

  47. Ah Star Crash. I distinctly remember Christopher Plummer in that one. Apparently the Hoff was in it too. I liked it at the time but I do remember being slightly disappointed in the effects because it post dated the genius that was Star Wars. Flash Gordon came out a little later. Same cheesy effects but still fun.

  48. We forget that the Astronauts risk their lives for science. I mean, they’d probably do it for the kicks but the fact they do so for such a noble endeavor is completely awesome.

  49. Jack Mitcham

    I’m an amateur when it comes to astronomy, but those are some impressive Fe lines.

  50. Cindy

    Thanks for the pics, Phil.

    And having worked on FOS way back in the early 90’s, it’s nice to see a good graphic about spectra.

    I’m showing the pictures to all my students who are checking into the dorm for the night right now. Will probably show it to my students tomorrow morning in class as well.

  51. T.E.L.

    Jack Mitcham, did you say something about cats?

  52. I, for one, welcome our new giant iron cat overlords.

  53. The sky out there is sooooooooo beautiful. It used to be just plain blue sky from my end. Now, I can see beyond! Thank you for letting me see the wonders beyond the sky.

  54. pontoppi

    Dude, that STIS graphic of Eta Car is one of the best illustrations of spectroscopy that I’ve seen!
    Not only is HST science supercool, they also have the best graphics artists around. Now that’s what I call a press release.

  55. Spectroscope

    A-W-E-S-O-M-E!!! 😀

    Eta Carinae is the most mind-boggling superlative star & my personal favourite.

    In historic times as seen in our skies it went from a medium brightish star to surpassing Canopus and rivalling Sirius for brightest night-time star honours then fading away beyond the range of our unaided eyes and is now brightening once more with its searing starlight blazing through the clouds it cast off back in the 1850’s. ( As we count it anyway.)

    Eta Carinae is staggeringly superluminous – five million, (yes, five million, 5 with six zeroes after it!) times as bright as our Sun and one of the heavyweight champions of our Galaxy weighing in at an estimated one hundred and twenty or so times our Sun’s mass. It is a Luminous Blue Variable, seven thousand five hundred light years away and a cosmic lighthouse visible halfway across the Milky Way. It will become even brighter still hitting levels that exceeed all superlatives when it goes supernova some night in the future. It has ejected a vast beautiful nebula and the massive lobes spotted by HST there.

    That spectra is awesome – that camera is awesome and I have just one word to say to the BA for his superb work there & his blog here :

    Thankyou. :-)

    PS. And the other images there are breath takingly magnificent as well. Love it. 😀

  56. Rob

    That first image of NGC 6217 reminds me of a beautiful opal. Fantastic.
    We Exchanged Links With Your Blog Site

  57. Spectroscope

    @ 19. Trebuchet Says:
    September 9th, 2009 at 11:27 am
    And another typo: I think STIS is for “Space Telescope Imaging Spectroscope”, not “Imagine Spectroscope”.

    Me? Imagine what? 😉

    I can imagine quite a lot! 😉

    Wonderful pictures. Hubble is one of mankind’s great achievements; and its trials and tribulations have only made it more so.

    The Hubble Space Telescope observatory, in my opinion, is the greatest explorer in human history bringing more new places and showing us more of the cosmos we live in than any explorer ever before – and all in a peaceful scientific manner where no-one gets hurt and everyone on the Earth can enjoy the marvellous glorious results of its work. I second Trebuchet’s line there.

    @ 20. Sili Says:

    The real Greatest Show on Earth! (wink goes here) 😉

    There you go! 😉

    Although some picky pedants might nitpick and say the show is all off the Earth instead! 😉


    BTW. Sili – just in case you don’t already know this, you create the wink emoticon automatically by typing ; – ) without the spaces in-between. Similarly : -) gives you a smiley emoticon & 8 ) w/o space gives you 8) .

  58. Firebird

    Sometimes, when I see the threats and destructions of stupid politicians and dictators, bronzeage myths and other forms of ignorance and dogma, I do not have much hope for humanity. Seeing awesome pictures like these shows me what fantastic, mindboggling achievements mankind is capable of and I regain some hope for our future.

  59. @Firebird
    Or, we’ll have pretty pictures to look as the world burns around us.
    No, I’m not really that cynical. 😉

  60. MarkW

    OldGeezer at #42:

    You refer to “huge lobes of material ejected in a violent outburst from the star over a hundred years ago”. Shouldn’t this be 80 million, 100 years ago?

    I’m not an an astronomer, but I think that astronomers regard things as “happening” when they are observed. If I understand correctly, there are reasons (to do with relativity) to ignore the time taken for light to travel; in effect, simultaneity happens at light-speed.

  61. John

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t all that nickel and iron in Eta Car means that its really really close to supernova?

  62. Nigel Depledge

    Thanks, Phil, for a great post.

    I was gonna say “Oooh, pretty!”, but that sounds kinda lame in comparison to the images themselves.

  63. MB


    “Not nitpicking; just trying to learn here. You refer to “huge lobes of material ejected in a violent outburst from the star over a hundred years ago”. Shouldn’t this be 80 million, 100 years ago?”

    Eta Carinae is a star in our own galaxy, “only” 7500 light years away. The 80 million ly figure refers to NGC 6217, not Eta Car. You could however make a case for saying that the gas was ejected ~7600 years ago (100 years + light travel time). It’s generally easier to refer to things at the time they were observed on Earth.

    As long as you are consistent (and make clear) which date you’re quoting I guess it doesn’t really matter. Except… that as distance estimates are refined this will affect the “7600 years” figure but not the 100 years figure because the 100 years figure is something that came out of a history book while the 7600 year figure is the result of a calculation and not direct observation. So I guess that’s why astronomers usually go with the history book figure.


    “there are reasons (to do with relativity) to ignore the time taken for light to travel; in effect, simultaneity happens at light-speed.”

    In relativity two events that are simultaneous to one observer are not simultaneous to another observer that is moving relative to the first one. Since we are all moving at pretty much zero relative velocity to one another (compared to the speed of light) I don’t think relativity is much of an issue in practice. Personally I can’t see how the phrase “simultaneity happens at light-speed” is even meaningful. Care to try rewording that maybe? Are you talking about the fact that photons experience no proper time? That has nothing to do with simultaneity: NO observer will ever see the two ends of a photon world-line at the same time.

    I think that in practice relativity has less to do with dating than having a robust figure that won’t suddenly change with the next distance measurement. All of this is AFAIK, welcoming any corrections.

  64. Elwood Herring

    2nd pic: View of the sky as seen from Lagash in Asimov’s Nightfall (the short story, that is, not the inferior novelisation. Sorry Robert Silverberg, you’re still one of my favourite authors but you really shouldn’t mess with Asimov!)

    I remember reading it as a boy and trying to picture the whole sky full of close bright stars making darkness impossible and giving every object on the ground multiple coloured shadows, and that story was my first introduction to globular clusters. That story had a profound effect on me which lasts to this day. Seeing that picture brought it all back again. Thanks Hubble (and Phil, of course!)

    (Edit, to add the bit about coloured shadows!)

  65. @ Elwood Herring:

    I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to start burning stuff down.

  66. BigBob

    Congratulations Phil.
    Great Job and a good write up too.

  67. Phil, I thought you’d appreciate this (I tweeted it, but let’s face it, those are easy to miss). I was home ill on Wednesday and we had the Hubble Press Conference on both TVs (I was watching in the bedroom while everybody else was in the living room). When they switched over to the shots of Jupiter my not-quite-4-year-old daughter came running into the bedroom “I SAW JUPITER DADDY!” which she is obsessed with because it is the one non-moon object we can see really well through our Galileoscope.

    Galileoscope has done its job of winning over young astronomers, and Hubble is keeping them interested. Thank you!

  68. JaR

    A good start for a Sci-Fi novel is to take the Omega Centauri photo and isolate the stars by age, run a pattern recognition on the separate photos and discover some encoded message written over several million years. Probably a 3D message so it could be decoded by observers viewing from any angle. It would say whatever the author wanted it to say.

  69. Thanks so much for the information. This is a non-physical-scientist’s take on what you wrote: Zenobia Gets To Know Hubble


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