The Sciences

Hubble. Is. Back!

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitSep 9, 2009 1:46 PM


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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!

W00t! 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:

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

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.

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.

A prelaunch STIS in 1997.

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