TAQueries: Hubble’s Legacy

The Hubble Space Telescope is an extraordinary machine. A piece of engineering unlike any other. Hubble’s mirror, at 2.4 meters in diameter, is by far the largest mirror we’ve ever launched into orbit. The telescope is definitely capable of capturing stunning images. But Hubble can do much more than simply capture pretty pictures for us to gaze upon.

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A Hubble image of the star-forming region NGC 3603, a young star cluster that’s thought to have arisen about a million years ago. Image Credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration

Thanks to a whole fleet of scientific instruments onboard Hubble, we can tell the properties of stars, galaxies, nebulae, star clusters and a whole variety of other objects which many of us thought were impossible. The Hubble Telescope allows us to estimate the distance to any given object, calculate the mass of that object, tell you exactly what kind of atoms that object is made of, and then, on top of all that, give you a precise estimate of that object’s age. It’s hard to choose the greatest from the hundreds, maybe thousands, of achievements that Hubble was able to accomplish. From among all of those achievements, however, there are a couple that instantly come to mind.

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The Hubble Deep Field (HDF). Image Credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration

The Hubble Deep Field. I can only count 7 stars in this image. The rest of the dots and smudges are galaxies, each galaxy containing billions, some even trillions, of stars. This image covers an area about the size of a tennis ball — if held 100 metres away from you. It shows the sheer scale of the cosmos. The Hubble Deep Field is one of those images that, not only is the product of a great technological feat, but makes one profoundly reconsider their place in the universe.

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The Bullet Cluster. Image Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/CfA/ M.Markevitch et al.; Lensing Map: NASA/STScI; ESO WFI; Magellan/U.Arizona/ D.Clowe et al. Optical: NASA/STScI; Magellan/U.Arizona/D.Clowe et al.;

The Bullet Cluster is a composite image of two colliding clusters of galaxies just after impact, astronomically speaking anyway. A Hubble image with overlays of different wavelengths from other sources. The red hue is hot x-ray emitting gas which amounts to a mass greater than that of the galaxies themselves. What’s more important in the image, however, is the violet/blue hue. It represents the distribution of dark matter (you know… the substance that makes up ~27% of the observable universe that we have no idea what it’s made of) in the cluster, which we were able to calculate thanks to gravitational lensing seen in this image. Which, in turn, is thanks to Hubble’s extraordinary light collecting capabilities and the fact that Hubble observes the universe from high above Earth’s atmosphere.

To summarise all of this, Hubble has shown us our place in the universe and how small we really are, as well as provided unparalleled data to help us untangle the mysteries of the universe. The data acquired by Hubble over its lifetime, is the source of over 10,000 academic studies, conducted by NASA, ESA, and independent researchers alike, published in peer-reviewed scientific journals such as Nature and the Journal of Astrophysics & Astronomy. Eventually, when we are no longer able to support it, Hubble will meet its demise by burning up in Earth’s atmosphere as it falls back to Earth. Until then, I’m sure there are many more great discoveries to come from Hubble.

Not quite the answer you were looking for? Be sure to let me know via email: theastrophysicist@hotmail.com or by tweeting at me @ThomasMoszczuk

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