NASA’s Hubble Telescope mission is now 26 years in action, with images of comet collisions, epic clouds of space dust and distant, beautiful stars rocketing onto our screens relentlessly ever since.
Last year, Hubble’s 25th anniversary, was celebrated big time by NASA, with a dedicated site created to showcase some of the mission’s finest discoveries. Now, one year on, we look at how Hubble images have changed over its 26 years.
Floating just above Earth, it’s consistently upgraded and maintained camera lenses offer us greater and greater shots of the universe around us. Better still, it stays topical, last week celebrating Prince’s legacy with this wonderful tweet.
So here is a Hubble image from every year of its wonderful mission:
This colour image of Saturn was taken on August 26, 1990, when the planet was 1.39bn kms from Earth. The classic features of Saturn’s vast ring system are also clearly seen from outer to inner edge: the bright A and B rings, divided by the Cassini division, and the extremely faint inner C or crepe ring. The Encke division, a dark gap near the outer edge of the A ring, had never before been captured from Earth.
This image of Jupiter from 1991 was the first true-colour image of the giant planet. All features in this image are cloud formations in the atmosphere of Jupiter, which contain small crystals of frozen ammonia and traces of colourful chemical compounds of carbon, sulphur, and phosphorus. The temperatures of the clouds are extremely cold, about -280 degrees F.
In 1992, Hubble uncovered the strongest evidence yet that many stars form planetary systems. Dr C. Robert O’Dell of Rice University used Hubble to discover extended disks of dust around 15 newly formed stars in the Orion Nebula, a star-birth region 1,500 light-years away. Such disks are a prerequisite for the formation of solar systems like our own. “These images provide the best evidence for planetary systems,” said O’Dell at the time.
In 1993, Hubble gave astronomers their earliest look at a rapidly ballooning bubble of gas blasted off a star. The shell surrounds Nova Cygni 1992, which erupted February 19, 1992.
This 1994 picture of Saturn captures a rare storm that appears as a white arrowhead-shaped feature near the planet’s equator. An upwelling of warmer air, similar to a terrestrial thunderhead, generates the storm.
One of the most iconic Hubble images, this 1995 image portrays what NASA called at the time, “eerie, dramatic pictures [that] show newborn stars emerging from ‘eggs’”. These eggs are dense, compact pockets of interstellar gas called evaporating gaseous globules.
In 1996, Hubble followed on from Voyager 2’s capture of Uranus, with this picture revealing the distant planet’s clear and hazy layers of atmosphere, which are created by a mixture of gases. Using infrared filters, Hubble captured detailed features of three layers of the planet’s atmosphere.
In 1997, Hubble researchers thought they had identified the most luminous star known, a celestial mammoth that releases up to 10 million times the power of the sun and is big enough to fill the diameter of Earth’s orbit. The star unleashes as much energy in six seconds as our sun does in one year.
Resembling an aerial fireworks explosion, this 1998 picture of the energetic star WR124 reveals that it is surrounded by hot clumps of gas being ejected into space at speeds of over 100,000 mph.
At the end of the millennium, Hubble spotted this stellar swarm (NGC 6093), one of the densest of the known globular star clusters in the Milky Way Galaxy. Located about 28,000 light-years from Earth, M80 contains hundreds of thousands of stars, all held together by their mutual gravitational attraction.
The noughties brought about a dramatic improvement in image resolution, with this newborn star cluster within the Small Magellanic Cloud, a small satellite galaxy of our Milky Way, giving early-stage star development a new light.
In 2001, astronomers peered into the centre of a dense swarm of stars called Omega Centauri. Located some 17,000 light-years from Earth, Omega Centauri is a massive globular star cluster, containing several million stars swirling in locked orbits around a common centre of gravity.
Hubble caught a glimpse of a colourful cosmic ghost in 2002, the glowing remains of a dying star called NGC 6369. The glowing apparition is known to amateur astronomers as the “Little Ghost Nebula,” because it appears as a small, ghostly cloud surrounding the faint, dying central star.
In 2003, Hubble trained its razor-sharp eye on one of the universe’s most stately and photogenic galaxies, the Sombrero galaxy, Messier 104 (M104). The galaxy’s hallmark is a brilliant white, bulbous core encircled by the thick dust lanes comprising the spiral structure of the galaxy.
A triple-eclipse of Jupiter was captured in 2004. There are five spots visible – one coloured white, one blue, and three black. Closer inspection reveals that these spots are actually a rare alignment of three of Jupiter’s largest moons – Io, Ganymede, and Callisto – across the planet’s face.
A violent and chaotic-looking mass of gas and dust is seen in this Hubble image of a nearby supernova remnant back in 2005. Denoted N 63A, the object is the remains of a massive star that exploded, spewing its gaseous layers out into an already turbulent region.
This image of the Antennae galaxies was the sharpest image ever taken of this merging pair of galaxies back in 2006. During the course of the collision, billions of stars will be formed.
Thousands of sparkling young stars are nestled within the giant nebula NGC 3603 in this 2007 image. This stellar “jewel box” is one of the most massive young star clusters in the Milky Way Galaxy.
Using images from four separate science proposals taken in November 1999, April 2000, August 2005, and April 2006, in 2008 Hubble scientists created this ‘snowglobe’ of stars from the globular cluster M13, one of the brightest and best-known globular clusters in the northern sky.
Arp 194 is a galaxy with a difference. The bright blue streamer is really a stretched spiral arm full of newborn blue stars. This typically happens when two galaxies interact and gravitationally tug at each other.
NGC 3982 is located about 68 million light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major. The galaxy spans about 30,000 light-years, one-third of the size of our Milky Way galaxy. This picture released in 2010 followed a decade of observations, collated into one.
In 2011, Hubble released an image of the giant cosmic Necklace Nebula, the glowing remains of an ordinary, sun-like star.
2012 got very violent, with astronomers using data from Hubble to catch two clusters full of massive stars that may be in the early stages of merging. The 30 Doradus Nebula is 170,000 light-years from Earth. What at first was thought to be only one cluster in the core of the massive star-forming region 30 Doradus has been found to be a composite of two clusters that differ in age by about one million years.
While surveying more than 100 planetary nebulae in the central bulge of our Milky Way galaxy in 2013, this butterfly-shaped or hourglass-shaped has a rotation axis is perpendicular to the plane of our galaxy.
The greatest-named galaxy is, obviously, “El Gordo” – Spanish for ‘The fat one’, or better translated as ‘The me’. In 2014, this image of the monstrous cluster of galaxies, viewed at a time when the universe was just half of its current age of 13.8 billion years, was revealed.
Last year, Hubble unveiled in stunning detail a small section of the expanding remains of a massive star that exploded about 8,000 years ago. Called the Veil Nebula, the debris is one of the best-known supernova remnants. The entire nebula is 110 light-years across, covering six full moons on the sky as seen from Earth, and resides about 2,100 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus, the Swan.
Just in time for its 26th anniversary, Hubble captured this enormous, balloon-like bubble being blown into space by a super-hot, massive star. Called the Bubble Nebula, or NGC 7635, it’s seven light-years across — about one-and-a-half times the distance from our sun to its nearest stellar neighbour, Alpha Centauri.