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Not everything it sees is on purpose.
This one’s a bit personal, so allow me to expound a bit here.
Hubble has several cameras on board. They sit in the very bottom of Hubble, in the wider portion below the mirror (unlike a normal telescope, the mirror for Hubble is located a third of the way up from the aft end). Each sees a slightly different region of the sky, separated by a few arcminutes (the Moon is 30 arcminutes across for comparison). So if one camera is being used to look at, say, the heart of the Andromeda galaxy, then the others are looking near the galaxy’s center but not right at it.
Enter the Parallels Program. When a new solid state recorder was placed on board in 1997, it greatly enhanced Hubble’s capability to record data (which was done using tape drives before then). The pipeline was fat enough to record data from three cameras at the same time, so when one was observing as the primary camera, the other two could take data as well.
Sometimes while observing some primary target Hubble would be rotated to point the other cameras at something interesting (like was done with the lunar observations I mentioned earlier), but sometimes they were simply allowed to record whatever the heck they saw. This procedure was called the Parallels Program, because the other cameras were used in parallel with the primary one.
In October of 1997, Hubble was pointed at the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small galaxy that orbits the Milky Way. WFPC2 was the primary instrument, but the camera I worked on, the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, or STIS, was being used as a parallel instrument. That happened a lot, and at my office the first thing I would do every morning was go through the previous day’s parallels using STIS and see if there was anything interesting in them.
Yes, part of my job was to look at Hubble images of regions of space no one had ever seen before and check them out. And yes, it was pretty damn cool.
The majority of the time there wasn’t much to see: faint fuzzy galaxies, or a wisp of nebulosity. Sometimes the primary camera would observe a nearby galaxy many times over the course of months, and after a while just by glancing at the STIS image I could tell you what galaxy it was from the brightness and density of stars. Not a terribly marketable skill, but still. Cool.
Anyway, one day we got that LMC observation — the one shown above — and I noticed the fuzzy circle at the top. I knew right away it was a small planetary nebula, a blast of gas emitted from a dying star. You can see it in the image, and it’s zoomed at the bottom left. To my disappointment it had been discovered before, so this wasn’t new and I couldn’t name it. But we did get good spectra, which allowed me to take some basic diagnostics of the nebula that hadn’t been done before.
I was able to publish my results in a paper, which also was nice. My work on STIS was awesomely fun sometimes, but I rarely got to publish anything; my name was always way down the list of people who contributed to the work. So this was a nice perq.
The Parallels Program still continues. I don’t know what it’s found since I left the project. Maybe someday I’ll poke around the archives and find out.
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