The space observatory and its instruments, an international cooperative effort between NASA and the European Space Agency, captures unprecedented views of stars, galaxies and the distant universe in visible, ultraviolet and near-infrared light. These different wavelengths of light have allowed Hubble to peer into different regions of space that had never been observed before.
It orbits the Earth from a distance of 340 miles, well above the distorting effects of Earth’s atmosphere for observing space both near and far.
“Hubble gave us a new sharp clarity in our view of deep space,” said Jennifer Wiseman, Hubble Senior Project Scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. “And that came about simply because Hubble was placed above the atmosphere of the earth.
“This has given us a new vantage point for viewing everything in the universe from the nearby solar system to distant galaxies and opened our eyes to the richness of the content of the universe and dynamic activity of the universe over time.”
The telescope was named for pioneering astronomer Edwin Hubble, who discovered in the 1920s that distant clouds in the universe were actually galaxies. (He died in 1953.) Hubble relied on the work of astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt’s discovery of the periods of brightness in pulsating stars called Cepheid variables.
Hubble’s work led to the revelation that our galaxy was one of many, forever changing our perspective and place in the universe. Hubble continued his work and discovered that distant galaxies appeared to be moving rapidly, suggesting that we live in an expanding universe that started with a big bang.
“One of the main reasons for building Hubble was to be able to measure more precisely the expansion rate of the universe,” Wiseman said.
“By Hubble’s ability to observe activity in distant and faint galaxies, we’ve been able to measure that expansion rate. We’re still refining it. In recent years, Hubble, along with others observatories, was a major contributor to the discovery that this expansion rate is accelerating and that was a surprise. We now call the phenom behind this dark energy.”
This detection of the universe’s expansion rate helped lead to the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, awarded to Saul Perlmutter, Brian P. Schmidt and Adam G. Riess “for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe through observations of distant supernovae.”
Over 30 years, Hubble has enabled astronomers around the world to study black holes, mysterious dark energy, distant galaxies and galactic mergers. It has observed planets outside of our solar system and where they form around stars, star formation and death, and it’s even spotted previously unknown moons around Pluto.
Hubble has characterized the atmospheres of exoplanets and spotted weather shifts on planets in our own solar system. And it’s looked across 97% of the universe, effectively peering back in time.
The telescope was expected to last for 15 years, and it’s still going strong. But Hubble was also designed to be serviced and upgraded over time.
Each mission, which took years of planning and preparation, required the astronauts to leave the shuttle and conduct spacewalks to and inside a component of the telescope for repairs and installing instruments. All while the telescope moved at 17,000 miles per hour at an inclined 28.5 degrees to the equator around the Earth.
“It shows me how all of us can all work together to make something fantastically successful and gratifying for humankind,” Wiseman said. She has worked on Hubble in various roles for 20 years.
Discoveries, expected and unexpected
In 1994, Hubble had the chance to watch a violent event in our solar system.
The Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 was unexpectedly drawn into a collision with Jupiter, and the comet was pulled apart into fragments. Astronomers saw 21 pieces of the comet hit Jupiter, leaving temporary black scars within the planet’s iconic clouds. They had never seen anything like it before.
“This was an astounding realization that solar system bodies can interact in very energetic ways and that maybe our solar system isn’t a completely safe place to be,” Wiseman said.
“Since then, Hubble has given us a dramatic show of how planets in our solar system have weather changes, how asteroids can actually collide with each other, how moons of planets in our solar system can show activity and signs of water and basically how our solar system might in fact compare to other star systems.”
Outside of our solar system, Hubble has explored our Milky Way galaxy and neighboring galaxies. The dramatic, colorful images Hubble is known for are largely of active nebulae in our galaxy, bright clouds of gas and dust where stars are forming.
In 1997, a servicing mission installed NICMOS on Hubble, the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer. This new instrument allowed the observatory to peer through the thick gas and dust surrounding star nurseries in galaxies, where the stars emit infrared light.
Rodger Thompson, the lead for NICMOS and an astronomy professor in the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, began working on the proposal for the instrument in 1984. It shaped the future of infrared astronomy, from revealing secrets of star formation to looking back at the earliest galaxies in the universe.
“We could see down into these dusty regions where stars are being formed in all the exquisite detail with Hubble,” Thompson said. “And we were able to trace star formation in the history of the universe, way back to the earliest galaxies, which were only a few percent of the age of the universe when they formed.”
In near-infrared, seemingly blank parts of sky appeared to light up with the evidence of distant galaxies, and no one expected that, Thompson said.
Astronomers found that many young stars have disks of dusty debris swirling around them, where planets form.
“When Hubble was launched (in 1990), no one knew about a single planet outside of our solar system,” said Tom Brown, the Hubble Mission Head at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland.
Astronomers found exoplanets in the 1990s using other telescopes, but Hubble was able to do groundbreaking science by following up on those observations and study exoplanet atmospheres.
Hubble’s firsts in exoplanet science include measuring another planet’s atmosphere, confirming the oldest known exoplanet, detecting the first organic molecule on an exoplanet and the first changes in an exoplanet atmosphere. Today, exoplanet science accounts for 20% of the telescope’s observational time.
The telescope has enabled the mapping of dark matter, even though dark matter is invisible.
“Dark matter is a mysterious substance that makes up most of the matter in the universe, but we don’t know what it is and can’t observe it because it doesn’t emit observable radiation,” Wiseman said. “But we know it’s there because of gravitational effects.”
“Hubble is being used to map out where dark matter is and its effects through gravitational lensing.”
Gravitational lensing has also allowed Hubble to look deeper into the early days of the universe. It occurs when clusters of galaxies create a distorting gravitational field that acts as a natural, giant magnifying glass for the distant galaxies beyond Hubble’s viewing capability.
Hubble also enabled astronomers to realize that galaxies tend to merge with one another, capturing dramatic images of these mergers unfolding across the universe. That’s how our own Milky Way galaxy grew to its current size, through merging with smaller galaxies.
And Hubble is credited with helping astronomers realize that supermassive black holes are ubiquitous with centers of giant galaxies. Hubble was able to observe gas falling into galactic centers near the speed of light, which is now considered a fundamental understanding, Brown said.
“Thinking about universe as a whole, I believe Hubble opened our eyes to the recognition that galaxies have changed dramatically over cosmic time,” Wiseman said.
The future of Hubble
Hubble’s scientists believe that the telescope will keep operating through at least 2025, if not longer. This provides astronomers with an excellent opportunity because Hubble can overlap with new space-based telescopes coming online soon, like NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope set to launch in 2021.
Webb is an infrared observatory. Together, their combined capabilities can provide a more complete picture of targets they observe. Webb will provide a more detailed look at exoplanets and their atmospheres and peer deeper into the earliest days of the universe than ever before.
Hubble continues to contribute to incredible discoveries and follows up on the detections and observations of other telescopes. For years, Hubble has been the perfect complement to NASA’s other Great Observatories, including the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the recently retired infrared Spitzer Space Telescope, as well as ground-based observatories.
It’s been used to follow up on detections of gravitational waves and the explosions of neutron star collisions by LIGO and VIRGO, which are gravitational wave detectors.
“We’re getting a better scientific return now than ever before,” Wiseman said. “I’m excited about how it will be used in coming years for new discoveries and in complement with newer observatories.”
Depending on when Hubble concludes, this could leave a massive gap for scientists who depend on Hubble’s observations to do their work.
And when it comes to Hubble observations and its incredible images, “there’s no other game in town,” Brown said.
Hubble has provided 1.4 million observations over 30 years, fueling more than 17,000 peer-reviewed scientific publications with its data, “making it the most prolific space observatory in history,” according to NASA. And Hubble’s archival data will provide a wealth of scientific opportunity in the decades ahead.
For now, they have hope that the telescope will continue on for years, and maybe even decades, to come.
“It’s aging in a very graceful, well understood way and operating just as powerful as ever,” Brown said.
Astronomers Detect a Suspiciously Shaped Galaxy Lurking in The Very Early Universe
Around 13.8 billion years ago, somehow the Universe popped into existence. But it didn’t come fully equipped. At some point, the first stars formed, and the first galaxies. How and when this happened is still a mystery astronomers are trying to solve… but one galaxy could have a vitally important key.
It’s called DLA0817g – nicknamed the Wolfe Disk – a cool, rotating, gas-rich disc galaxy with a mass of about 72 billion times that of our Sun. And the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array has snapped it a massive 12.5 billion light-years away – when the Universe was just 10 percent of its current age.
It’s the earliest rotating disc galaxy astronomers have found yet, and its very existence changes our understanding of galaxy formation in the early Universe.
Most of the galaxies in the early Universe are a hot mess, literally. They’re all blobby, with stars flying every which way, and rather high temperatures. Astronomers have interpreted this to mean that they grew large by colliding and merging with other galaxies – a hot, messy process.
“Most galaxies that we find early in the Universe look like train wrecks because they underwent consistent and often ‘violent’ merging,” explained astronomer Marcel Neeleman of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany.
“These hot mergers make it difficult to form well-ordered, cold rotating disks like we observe in our present Universe.”
Under this scenario, it takes a long time for the galaxies to cool down and smooth out into the more orderly rotating disc galaxies like the Milky Way. We don’t generally start seeing them until about 4 to 6 billion years after the Big Bang.
This is the “hot” mode of galaxy formation. But astronomers had also predicted and simulated another way – the “cold” mode.
First, you need to start with the primordial soup, an ionised quark-gluon plasma that filled the Universe before the formation of matter. To go from this homogeneous plasma to a Universe filled with stuff, astrophysicists have run simulations that suggest dark matter is responsible.
We don’t know what dark matter is. We can’t detect it directly, but it interacts gravitationally with normal matter. It helps to hold galaxies together, and we believe that it could be crucial to galaxy formation, clumps of it pulling together gas and stars into galaxies.
Supercomputer simulations have shown that a massive network of dark matter in the early Universe could have facilitated the formation of cool galaxies. If the gas was cool to start with, it could have been fed along filaments of the network into the dark matter clumps, accreting into large, cool, orderly disc galaxies.
But the only way to confirm this model is through observational evidence, so the researchers went looking, using the light of even more distant galaxies, called quasars, to illuminate the way.
Distant galaxies are very hard to see, but quasars are among the most luminous objects in the Universe – galaxies lit by an active supermassive black hole, the space around it blasting out radiation as it feeds. The team turned ALMA’s powerful capabilities to these distant quasars, looking for signatures in their light that showed that it had passed through a gas-filled galaxy on the way.
They found it. The light from one of the quasars they imaged had passed through a region rich with hydrogen – the signature of the Wolfe Disk.
And there was something else. The light on one side of the disc was compressed, or blueshifted. We see this when something is moving towards us. And the light from the other side was stretched, or redshifted – moving away from us. The object was rotating.
Those Doppler shifts, as they are known, then allowed the researchers to calculate the velocity of the galaxy’s rotation: around 272 kilometres per second.
What’s even more wild is that the team believes the Wolfe Disk isn’t one of a kind.
“The fact that we found the Wolfe Disk using this method, tells us that it belongs to the normal population of galaxies present at early times,” Neeleman said.
“When our newest observations with ALMA surprisingly showed that it is rotating, we realised that early rotating disk galaxies are not as rare as we thought and that there should be a lot more of them out there.”
The team will continue their search for these galaxies to find out just how common cold accretion was in the early Universe.
The research has been published in Nature.
NASA’s head of human spaceflight abruptly resigns, citing ‘mistake’ – CNN
His departure was effective on Monday.
When reached by phone Tuesday evening, Loverro declined to comment on the reason for his departure.
Loverro began serving in his role as the head of NASA’s human spaceflight programs in December, replacing William Gerstenmaier, who served in the role for more than a decade. In his nearly 700-word note, Loverro told NASA workers only that leaders are “called on to take risks” and added that, “I took such a risk earlier in the year because I judged it necessary to fulfill our mission.”
“Now, over the balance of time, it is clear that I made a mistake in that choice for which I alone must bear the consequences,” Loverro wrote. “And therefore, it is with a very, very heavy heart that I write to you today to let you know that I have resigned from NASA effective May 18th, 2020.”
Ken Bowersox, NASA’s acting deputy associate administrator for human exploration and operations, will become NASA’s interim head of human spaceflight.
Loverro’s exit immediately raised some eyebrows on Capitol Hill.
Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Democrat from Texas who chairs the House space and science committee, said in a statement that she was “shocked” by the news.
“I trust that NASA Administrator Bridenstine will ensure that the right decision is made as to whether or not to delay the launch attempt,” Johnson said. “Beyond that, Mr. Loverro’s resignation is another troubling indication that the Artemis Moon-Mars initiative is still not on stable footing. I look forward to clarification from NASA as to the reasons for this latest personnel action.”
The timing of Loverro’s departure was related to when Jurczyk, the associate administrator, made a recommendation to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, the source said. It was unrelated to next week’s Crew Dragon launch, the source added.
Jurczyk was the source selection officer for the Artemis lunar lander contract awards, according to public documents.
An agency-wide email sent on Tuesday said Loverro “hit the ground running” after his appointment in 2019 and had made “significant progress in his time at NASA.”
“His leadership of [NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations] has moved us closer to our goal of landing the first woman and the next man on the moon in 2024,” the email said. It said his resignation was effective immediately, though it did not provide details on the reason for his exit.
A NASA spokesperson declined to comment.
Loverro told CNN Business he is “100% confident” that leadership will be able to carry out the SpaceX mission. He added that he believes NASA’s ambitious human spaceflight goals are “doable.” “But,” he added, “it will take risk takers to get us there, and I hope folks who step in my shoes will continue to take risks.”
Next week’s SpaceX launch will mark the space agency’s highest-profile mission since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011. SpaceX, which has a multibillion-dollar contract under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, has worked for the better part of a decade to ready its Dragon spacecraft for crewed flights to the International Space Station. Since the Shuttle retired, NASA has had to rely on Russia for rides to the ISS.
In an orange swirl, astronomers say humanity has its first look at the birth of a planet
An image of a mesmerizing cosmic spiral, twisting and swirling around a galactic maw, may be the first direct evidence of the birth of a planet ever captured by humanity.
The European Southern Observatory released a picture Wednesday of what astronomers believe shows the process of cosmic matter at a gravitational tipping point, collapsing into a new world around a nearby star.
Astronomers said the dramatic scene offers a rare glimpse into the formation of a baby planet, which could help scientists better understand how planets come to exist around stars.
“Thousands of exoplanets have been identified so far, but little is known about how they form,” the lead author of a study detailing the discovery, Anthony Boccaletti, an astronomer at the Observatoire de Paris in France, said in a statement.
Planets are thought to form out of the massive discs of gas and dust that surround young stars. As tiny specks of dust circle a star and collide with one another, some material starts to fuse, much like how rolling a snowball through more snow will eventually yield a bigger snowball. After billions of years, the clumps of material become large enough that the force of gravity shapes them into planets.
The new image peers into the disc of material around a young star known as AB Aurigae, which is 520 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Auriga. Amid the hypnotic spiral arms is a “twist,” visible in the photo as a bright yellow region in the center, that is thought to be a sign of a planet being born, said Emmanuel Di Folco, a researcher at the Astrophysics Laboratory of Bordeaux in France, who participated in the study.
When a planet forms, the clumps of material create wavelike perturbations in the gas- and dust-filled disc around a star, “somewhat like the wake of a boat on a lake,” Di Folco said.
The bright region at the center of the new image is thought to be evidence of such a disturbance, which had been predicted in models of planetary birth.
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“The twist is expected from some theoretical models of planet formation,” said Anne Dutrey, an astronomer at the Astrophysics Laboratory of Bordeaux and co-author of the study, published Wednesday in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics. “It corresponds to the connection of two spirals — one winding inwards of the planet’s orbit, the other expanding outwards — which join at the planet location.”
The new observations of the baby planet were made in 2019 and early 2020 by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. The research team, made up of astronomers from France, Taiwan, the U.S. and Belgium, said the images are the deepest observations of the AB Aurigae system made to date.
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