Hubble celebrates 20 years in space with a jaw-dropper

By Phil Plait | April 27, 2010 7:16 am

I was out of town at a wedding this weekend, so I missed blogging about the spectacular image release for the Hubble Space Telescope’s 20th anniversary (here’s the US site). And yikes, it’s simply mind-smackingly mind smacking. Behold:


Ye gods. Click to get access to massively embiggened versions.

This is a stunning close-up of a section of the vast Carina Nebula, a sprawling and complex Escher-like region of gas and dust about 7500 light years away. It’s the scene of chaotic star birth and death, slammed and reslammed by winds from stars being born and others busy blowing up.

In this image — which is only a part of the full view of this magnificent vista — the tentacles of dust tower light-years in length, and at the tips of those fingers are stars that are just now forming. The material around them is thicker than what surrounds it, and can partially withstand the onslaught of subatomic particles and fierce ultraviolet being blasted about by hot, young, massive stars nearby, off the top of the image. This wind and light blow away the lighter material, leaving behind these structures that are essentially sandbars in space, material protected by the denser gas and dust at the tips.

All along the sides of the towers you can see streamers of material, filleted tenuous wisps that appear to be flowing from the towers themselves. But, in fact, this is matter flooding past the towers, gas slamming into and screaming around them. Look around the image and you can see the shock waves, the tremendous forces at play here. To give you a grasp of this, the battle ground for this action is tens of trillions of kilometers across, and the material is moving at a million kilometers per hour.

This is sculpting on a scale that would make Zeus cower in fear. But Nature does it as a matter of course.

And the forces at work here are capable of beauty and incredible detail. For example, cast your eyes upon this feature located at the tip of the uppermost trunk:


This is my favorite part of the image, and not just because it looks like an angry gray alien (though admittedly that does add a bit of cool). The reason I love it (and the other one located at the tip of the fatter tower to the lower left) are the twin beams of material coming out of either side of it. Those jets of matter are caused by the forming star at the center; the star is being born in the center of a flattened disk called an accretion disk. Complex magnetic fields are at play here, and they cause the gas in the disk to be propelled away, up and out from the star’s poles, at high speed. Note the beautiful sculpted shock wave at the left end of the jet as it plows into the dense material in the nebula itself. We see lots of these paired jets — called Herbig-Haro Objects — and they mark the positions of new stars. Our Sun may have looked a lot like this about 4.6 billion years ago.

Now let’s take a step back. Here’s a fascinating look at this scene, comparing the view in visible light to that of infrared:


Note that in the left (visible) image, you don’t see very many stars. The dust is thick in Carina, and that blocks the light from the stars. But in the IR (right), the light can pass through the dust and we see many more stars. A lot of the detail in the towers disappears because the pillars are transparent in IR, so we lose that part of the picture. In the visible, the colors represent light from glowing oxygen (blue), hydrogen and nitrogen (green), and sulfur (red). These are not necessarily the most abundant elements in the gas (well, hydrogen is), but they tend to glow the brightest and are easiest to see.

So this is more than just (just! ha!) a beautiful image. The multi-color versions of it tell us the temperature, the density, and the elemental composition of the gas and dust as well. By examining clouds like this one, we learn about the vast and subtle processes that take place when stars are born en masse.

There is so much to see here that I could go on for quite some time about it. But I think I’ll just leave it here. Go and download the hi-res versions of these images and simply play with them. Have fun, and keep in mind that what you are seeing here was unimaginable just a few decades ago. The things we can do now…

You can read more about Hubble’s 20th anniversary at NASA’s special page. You can also check out my Ten Things You Don’t Know About Hubble for more insight into my own involvement with this magnificent observatory.

Credit: NASA, ESA, M. Livio and the Hubble 20th Anniversary Team (STScI)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (59)

Links to this Post

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  1. Ryan Smith

    That is so insane, it looks fake. Are we sure hubble isn’t a hoax?

  2. chimango

    @Ryan Smith; my thoughts exactly; i believe it’s an artist’s impresion, they have one in orbit!

  3. Douglas Troy

    Stunning. Just stunning.

    The Universe is an amazing place.

  4. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Douglas Troy : Absolutely. 8)

    Eta Carinae is one superluminous star – about the brightest in our Galaxy with five million times our Sun’s luminosity and 120 times its mass. It also underwent a near-supernova experience back in 1840 briefly becoming the second brightest star in our sky- even brighter than Canopus despite being over seven thousand lightyears away.

    Hard enough to imagine a star twice or twenty times as bright isn’t it? This is a star that blows my mind every time I think of it.

    All wrapped in a nebula of its own making (or possibly birth?) and a likely candidate for the next supernova in our Milky Way.

    See : for more.

    An apt and beautiful image to celebrate the Hubble Space Observatory’s 20th anniversary indeed.

  5. Measter

    Am I the only person who noticed a collection of dust in the shape of a Klingon D7 battlecruiser in the lower left of the full view?

  6. Allen

    These images are a great reason to get into astronomy (part of the reason for me), and it’s really easy to see why astronomy is one of the more visible sciences in the public square.

    The Universe is certainly a beautiful place, and I for one am glad to be living in this time. I look forward to seeing many more images like these in Hubble’s last years.

  7. Michael D.

    I am having great difficulty (as I have with previous Hubble images) of wrapping my mind around the fact that I am looking at an image on my computer screen of a piece of the cosmos that is multiple LIGHT YEARS across!

  8. Muzz

    I’m probably out of step with all this, but all this hoopla with the HST’s 20th, new upgrades, images and movies about it. Hubble’s a star. Given that, why is it being walked away from so soon and superseded by an infra red observing platform instead of a bigger and better Hubble-esque thing?
    Is there really nothing that interesting in the visible spectrum any more, or can all the others get it for us (or some other project I’ve missed)?

  9. Pieter Kok

    Beautiful! But Escher-like? That seems the wrong adjective.

  10. The full view of this image is my desktop backgroud :) SUCH an amazing picture. It is astounding what technology can do today.

  11. DigitalAxis

    @8 Muzz: Advances in Adaptive Optics mean that larger ground-based telescopes can resolve finer details than Hubble. Simply put, now that we can correct for atmospheric distortion, we don’t need to have an optical telescope in outer space, particularly not a 2.4 meter telescope (which would be considered small, nowadays).

    NOW the focus on going into space is about seeing light that can’t reach the surface: mid-IR, UV, X-rays, Gamma rays…

  12. Cindy

    #8 Muzz

    Based on a lot of optical discoveries from Hubble, an infrared telescope is the next logical follow up. Not only does dust obscure a lot of visible light, but early galaxies have been redshifted so much that infrared is a better waveband to look for them.

    Also, with continuing development of adaptive optics, we can see more visible light from the ground.

    When I first heard that the successor would be in the infrared I was a little disappointed as well, but then thought more about it and it does make sense.

  13. Kevin

    I saw a large print of this over the weekend, when my local astronomy club had former NASA astronaut Story Musgrave come in and give a talk for Astronomy Day.

    You think it’s nice on a computer – you should see it really large. ūüėÄ

  14. In the lower left of the full image I see someone doing the “metal horns” symbol, which is right: this image rocks!

  15. Hey Phil, do you (or anyone?) know what kind of density that dust has? If you flew into it, would you notice anything, or not be able to see anything in front of you (like a fog)? I’m assuming it’s not dense – just the size of it from this distance will make it look that way. Am I right, or hopelessly wrong?

  16. DreamDevil

    Am I the only one who saw Thor on his chariot, swinging Mjölner?

  17. Josie

    I hope I am not the only one who sees the bear cavalry (yeah we’re pretty much screwed)

    I love pareidolia

  18. DrFlimmer

    The top Herbig Haro object always looks like a helicopter to me ūüėČ

    @ Muzz

    To add a little bit to the other two answers: ESO will build a new optical telescope, the E-ELT, which will have a primary mirror with a diameter of (*grasp*) 42 m!!!! That is SO much larger than Hubble, that there is no need for another optical ‘scope in space. As already stated by the other answers, adaptive optics work very well and the atmosphere is no longer a thread (neglecting clouds – but that’s why the big ‘scopes are built in the Atacama desert).

  19. DrFlimmer (#16) Hate to disagree, but that’s not correct. Mirror size is only one issue. Resolution is another, and our atmosphere absorbs UV and IR. There will always be a need for ‘scopes in space.

  20. CW

    *Set Image to Desktop* It takes a really beautiful image to replace my swimming beaver pic with the caption “I don’t give a dam” … and this is such an image.

  21. Jake

    Joel 2:30: “I will show signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke.”

  22. NthDegree256

    So Phil, I’m trying to make sure I’m interpreting this correctly (so I don’t run my mouth off spouting nonsense while I gush about this gorgeous photo to others!) Based on my reading of the “Fast Facts” page, this photo is in visible light, but they captured 3 spectra (two different shades of red and a shade of cyan) and mapped it to red, green, and blue, right? So our pitiful human eyes would most likely see it with less green and more red?

  23. Looks like there are nice proplyds in there!

    Phil- I think DrFlimmer is arguing about OPTICAL scopes in space. However, until I see great AO images, I still doubt that Earth based can do this

    (AO= adaptive optics that correct for the Earth’s atmosphere on the fly)

  24. Sandy L

    Magnificent! Awe-inspiring!! Thank you.

  25. DrFlimmer

    @ Phil and Specemom

    That’s right, I talked about optical telescopes. That we need space ‘scopes in the other ranges is quite clear. James-Webb will be fantastic in a few years…..

    Well, every picture released by ESO is most likely an “AO”-shot. The great ‘scopes in these days do not work without it.

  26. Navneeth

    I could go on for quite some time about it

    Please do. If we only wanted to see pretty pictures, we’d visit the observatories’ websites and read drably written press releases.

  27. #9 Pieter Kok.

    Max Ernst? Dali?

    Not sure – but no, not Escher.

  28. jcm

    “This is sculpting on a scale that would make Zeus cower in fear.”

    Or, any other god.

  29. Phil РI love the way you write: (And yikes, it’s simply mind-smackingly mind smacking.)

    It makes it fun and easy to read & to understand what your’e saying. The Hubble is amazing!

  30. Travis D

    I often hear about how much better the new ground interferometers (like Keck, ESO) are but it seems like the truly stunning images always come from Hubble. What’s up with that? Different research priorities?

  31. How long until some God Squad loony sees the face of Jesus in it…
    As others have already started the “pareidolia contest” – I see a bear holding a baby monkey ( bottom half of right pillar ) and a lioness ( top of same pillar, tail pointing up ).

    Seriously, another fantastic picture.

  32. Chad

    I’m pretty sure this makes the Carina Nebula the most metal nebula in the galaxy.

  33. Scottynuke

    I still say it’s a happy bear pawing a butterfly. :-)

  34. George Martin

    CNN’s Headline News was showing this image about once an hour Saturday morning. But when they showed it, it was identified was identified as the Eta Carinae nebula galaxy. And they dropped their small science group, putting everything into Tech these days.


  35. Buzz Parsec

    IIUC, adaptive optics can only correct a very small field of view, so it is fine for high-res things like splitting double stars or resolving small details on small objects, finding Cepheids in distant galaxies, etc., but doesn’t help much for extended objects like nebulae, nearby galaxies, etc.

    I think the reason Hubble is being replaced by an IR telescope is budgetary… Given a choice between another (bigger and better) Hubble or something else, but not both, the people in charge went with the big IR (JWST).

  36. avsky

    I wish they’d show things like this on the news, things that matter.. instead of celebrity scandals and endless death and murder. Educate the masses!

  37. Muzz

    Cheers for the replies DigitalAxis, Cindy, DrFlimmer. I do get , on some level why they’re doing this, but I can’t help but think…Man!
    Call me an old romantic if you wish but you can’t really top what it means to know some image is from the human visible spectrum, taken by some great camera of ours in space (even though that’s not really the way it works). I do find it hard to imagine earth based stuff will get the same results, even if you can put a few telescopes on the ground with the computing power to resolve anything for the cost of one space telescope. Can you really do a HST deep field picture from the ground, with all the weather and rotating and everything? I’m sure that steering the Hubble to do those passes in the survey was not at all quick or straightforward either, but I’d be interested to know that.
    I suppose it will be said that such things would be much better and more useful in infra red and Xray etc anyway. I’m sure that’s true, but having the visible along side it (and overlaid on top etc) is just that much more meaningful to average joes like me. A single observatory like that is a, dare I say it, great focal point for public outreach. The STScI site has been a clearing house for the best space stuff you could see for the longest time, just by virtue of what the HST can do, and the visible light stuff has been such a big part of that. I can’t see individual optical observatories dotted around the globe achieving quite the same effect. Perhaps I’m wrong about that (there’s some good web sites collating stuff these days after all).

    It might be said that I’m putting pretty pictures and PR ahead of proper science, and to an extent that’s true. But I’m not trying to tell NASA their business and I know it’s not like the plug is going to be pulled. Maybe the private sector will take it over (maybe in ten years it won’t seem like such a big deal to cruise on over and give it a tune up. Ok, twenty then).
    I am just saying, like many I’m sure, that it’s a bummer. If ever the HST or something a lot like it isn’t up there we might find a hole left in the public ‘space conversation ‘, let’s call it.

  38. Grand Lunar

    Just out of curiosity, how close would one have to be to see this same image with the unaided eye?

    Pure awesome, BTW!

  39. Paul

    Can someone clarify something for me, please?

    In the related comparison photo, it says this shot is within the visible light spectrum.. This isn’t what would be seen by the human eye, is it? … Or is it??

  40. kev

    A lovely picture. Sadly, space doesn’t really look like that.

  41. Meshakhad

    If G-d did create the Universe, this is His Mona Frakkin Lisa.

  42. Great shots, and happy anniversary to Hubble – it’s astounding to see the difference between youtube (or any forum, really) comments and these comments – such a huge difference.
    Good discussion and info on here lads ^

    thanks for the pics

  43. Chongo

    It looks like a hunter on a horse spearing some pesky bears!

  44. jake

    This reminds me a lot of Christo Redentor in Rio De Janiero.

  45. Carl Buehler

    Thank you for the posting.

    I have seen this picture 20 times and was always amazed by it. However, it never came with such a lucid explanation.



  46. As Borat would say -“Wow wee wow WoW wow wee!!” Epic universe we all live in! And thus we are all part of being epic!! Or something…awesome article none the less on an already fascinating topic!

  47. Gota love NASA and Hubble. To celebrate I’ve created a free Hubble screen saver, click the link below to download.


  48. Wood Gas

    I see the angry alien riding a grizzly, next to a bison and calf with a baboon and baby in the fore ground. But, then again,the sixties were very good to me.

    How does this much gas and dust accumulate in one region? Gravity, sure, electrostatic attraction maybe, a self contained electromagnetic field? The latter works for CME’s but they are pretty hot when the sun produces them. Read a bit about hypernova cores generating enough heat/pressure to create a kind of quantum soup with pair particle (matter/antimatter) generation just before there is a really big gang. Perhaps with the same matter over anti bias that is theorized for the original big bang.

    Just maybe, a hell of a lot more comes out of a hypernova than went in.

  49. The heat is still expanding from the birth of the universe,
    Time and space wrapped together uncursed.
    While other dimensions weave in and out of our space,
    Yet our life continues-the humble human race.

  50. aretheyrealorcontrived

    i hate those stupid lens flare/star bursts

  51. Anthony

    So did anyone else think that looks like Space Jam?

  52. Your mother

    It looks like Buffalo

  53. kt+

    Does anyone else see Zues or a bear/lion?

  54. Lee Stevens

    The colors are all added based on data from the image but that doesn’t mean when anywhere close to what is being photographed that’s what it really will look like. The public likes it and keeps selling very expensive missions ,like 1 billion for 1 satellite to lap Jupiter thirty times.

  55. Doingitwronf

    @Lee Stevens

    As a link above described, the colors are assigned to let us see what we normally can’t. Since they never mention it except in a caption below the images, it’s understandable that it seems a bit underhanded. But the value in this is not pretty pictures. The analysis of these photographs allows scientists to learn even more about the laws that govern the universe. And while such missions come with a great monetary cost, the scientific data and findings are arguably worth that price tag.


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