Three generations of Hubble cameras capture a spiral

By Phil Plait | October 19, 2010 9:30 am

Check out this magnificent picture of the 68-million-light-year distant spiral galaxy NGC 3892 taken by Hubble:


OOooo, pretty! Click to engalactinate (or go here to grab a monstrous 2500×2600 pixel shot).

I’ve written about images like this before: why there are spiral arms, how the red light denotes hydrogen gas, the location of active star birth; the reddish-yellow glow of the core indicating old stars.

But what amazed me most about this picture — besides its sheer beauty — is that it’s composed of images from three separate generations of Hubble cameras! The Wide Field/Planetary Camera 2 was installed on Hubble in 1993, the Advanced Camera for Surveys went up in 2002, and the Wide Field Camera 3 last year in 2009. All three took images that were used to make this lovely portrait of the spiral galaxy; images that span nearly a decade of time between them.

One of Hubble’s strengths is that it can be periodically upgraded as technology improves. But this comes at a cost, literally: it’s expensive. NASA has a finite budget, and finite manpower. Money spent to upgrade Hubble and keep using it is money that cannot be used for other missions. That’s why, after 20 years, no more servicing missions are planned. What we have with Hubble right now is pretty much what we’ll get… unless private space companies take over, or NASA gets a massive infusion of cash. Neither seems likely to me.

But don’t despair. The James Webb Space Telescope launches in a few years, and promises to deliver more epic images and science. And there will be other observatories as well. Hubble may be the first space telescope most people heard about, but it won’t be the last.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (15)

  1. Messier Tidy Upper

    Superluminous (beyond just brilliant) image! :-)

    I literally gasped then whistled on seeing that. Jaw-dropping.

    Thankyou. :-)

  2. John

    Yeah, but Webb wont be able to take that image, seeing as it wont have any blue wavelength coverage.

  3. OtherRob

    I know that there will be an incredible amount of data generated by the Webb telescope that will take increase our understanding of the universe in ways we probably can’t even begin to imagine. But I must say I am a little disappointed that it won’t take visible-light pictures. I just love those images that show what we would see if we were there.

  4. Larry

    My god, it’s full of stars!

  5. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Larry : And dust lanes and nebulae and a central supermassive black hole too! ūüėČ

    @3. OtherRob : Agreed.

    Hubble may be the first space telescope most people heard about

    Mine was the IRAS infra-red space observatory in 1983 via one of Patrick Moore’s books! ūüėČ

    I vividly recall reading about IRAS discovering dust disk suggesting possible panets around Vega and Fomalhaut and Beta Pictoris – two of which stars have now had actual exoplanets imaged orbiting them. (Although some doubt has, I gather, recently been cast on the Fomalhaut b one. Sigh.)

    But then I’m an unusual individual case ūüėČ

    The Hubble has been, without doubt, one of the most amazing, successful & beloved human creations of all time. I wish they’d boost the HST into a higher orbit and not burn it up when the Hubble’s career ends.

  6. Messier Tidy Upper

    PS. See : for more.

    NB. D’oh! That’s “planets” not panets (whatever they might be) around Vega, Fomalhaut & Beta Pic natch. And I very nearly had that typo correction down as “plants” instead! Definitely bedtime for me now! ūüėČ

  7. Cindy

    What, no original WFPC images of that galaxy? Then it could have been 4 generations of cameras.

  8. RickJ

    Oops, you mean NGC 3982. 3892 is a rather obscure barred SB0 galaxy nearly twice as distant.


  9. Gus Snarp

    What I find interesting is that the reason people have heard of Hubble in the first place is because of its early problems. In fact, I would bet that if you asked people my age and older, who were not in any way astronomy buffs, about Hubble, you would find a sizable majority who believe it was a failure (that is, if they remembered it at all).

  10. OtherRob: I understand what you’re saying, but even Hubble pictures are taken using filters and the color balance is changed quite a bit in processing. Whether or not those images truly represent the celestial objects as they would appear if you were right there is in doubt anyway.

  11. andy

    I quite like this post which includes a bit on what it would look like from a distance of roughly 300 kly from the Sombrero Galaxy.

  12. Just looked at the 2500 by 2600 pixel version. Sweet! And very very big in all senses.

  13. Jon Hanford

    If you look closely (preferably using a large version of the pic), very few “starlike” blue clusters are to be found very close to the nucleus of this galaxy. Its fairly easy to spot the transition zone in the galaxy once this is pointed out(hopefully). I’m curious as to why this is so, noting that abundant dust clouds are to be seen crossing the smooth blue inner arms. What mechanism is responsible for the paucity of star clusters in the region immediately adjacent to the nucleus? Any ideas?

    btw, the Hubble Heritage site has a page on this image that includes extra info, a short video on the making of the image and the individual B&W exposures combined to make the finished piece:

  14. Chris Winter

    I stumbled across this in Quark Soup, which linked to the full Huffington Post story.

    President Obama to appear on Mythbusters December 8.

    This is a googleplex kinds of awesome. I trust I picked a suitable thread in which to introduce it.

  15. 2. John Says: “Yeah, but Webb wont be able to take that image, seeing as it wont have any blue wavelength coverage.”

    True, but that’s not the purpose of the JWT. It is designed to look further back than the Hubble, and in that region (nearly) all of the visible light has red-shifted to the IR. Hence the spectrum it’s designed to look at.

    – Jack


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