Arizona State University - NASA
Hubble's view of the Eagle Nebula's star-forming region is well-known as the "Pillars of Creation." The full image is part of the slide show at right.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com

We are living in the midst of a revolution in astronomy, with unprecedented images of the cosmos sent back from outer space. Take a guided tour through some of the best images in the universe, brought to you from Earth orbit and beyond.

Since 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has looked out to the cosmos from an orbital vantage point more than 350 miles above the earth's surface. After launch, scientists discovered that Hubble's optics were flawed, and it took three years and a dramatic spacewalk to correct its vision.

Since then, the $2 billion, 12.5-ton orbiting observatory has ranked as one of NASA's greatest success stories.

Hubble's best-known images include an iconic look at the starbirth region in the Eagle Nebula, shown above, as well as the Hourglass Nebula, which has been dubbed “the eye of God.” The slide show above takes you through those greatest hits.

Hubble may be the best-known platform for space imagery, but scores of other missions have sent back images that are visually stunning as well as scientifically significant.

Slideshow: Jewels of Jupiter

“Jewels of Jupiter” presents snapshots of Jupiter and its moons, sent back by the Galileo and Cassini spacecraft.

Galileo arrived at Jupiter in 1995 to sample the giant planet's atmosphere and record its cloud patterns, including the Great Red Spot. The mission was extended twice, so that Galileo could focus on the moons of Jupiter. Among the probe’s most intriguing findings were indications that there may be watery oceans beneath the icy crusts of two of those moons, Europa and Callisto. Some scientists believe such alien oceans could harbor life — but this hypothesis will have to be tested by future probes. Galileo was sent on a mission-ending plunge into Jupiter's atmosphere in 2003.

Cassini, meanwhile, snapped pictures of Jupiter on its way to a 2004 rendezvous with Saturn.

The marvels of Mars have been studied for more than 25 years by space probes including Viking landers and orbiters, the Hubble Space Telescope, Mars Pathfinder and Global Surveyor. The planet is now dry and cold, but scientists believe the Red Planet was once much more like Earth. The images from NASA spacecraft reveal canyons and flood plains where water once flowed. Liquid water may still exist far below the planet’s surface. Could life have developed on Mars billions of years ago? Might microbial life still exist in underground aquifers or beneath polar caps? Such questions will be the focus of future missions.

Slideshow: Best of Cassini

"Starring Saturn" highlights imagery of the ringed planet from the Cassini orbiter, which began its work in 2004. This slideshow highlights Saturn's atmosphere and rings, but we have other views from Cassini as well. You can continue your exploration with a slideshow focusing on Titan , Saturn's smog-covered moon, which boasts lakes of chilled hydrocarbons and may be following in primeval Earth's footsteps. You can also catch views of tiger-striped Enceladus , an ice-covered moon that may possess subsurface oceans of liquid water and perhaps life as well. Yet another slideshow features imagery of Saturn from Cassini plus earlier space missions. And as a bonus, we have a slideshow featuring Saturn and its moons that celebrates the 10th anniversary of Cassini's launch in 1997.

“The Voyage of the Millennium” is our three-part retelling of America’s early space saga, in audio and historic imagery. Photojournalist Roger Ressmeyer went through stacks of NASA images and selected his favorites to show how Mercury and Gemini led up to the Apollo program and 1969's first moon landing.

Slideshow: 'We choose to go to the moon’

Part 1: In the beginning, there were so many questions: Did the success of Sputnik mean the Soviets were taking control of the skies? Could the Americans ever hope to catch up in the space race? Would astronauts survive being sent up on rockets that had an annoying tendency to blow up? In 1962, President John Kennedy addressed those questions dramatically: “We choose to go to the moon,” he said, not because it was easy, but because it was hard. For seven years, hundreds of thousands of people — engineers and explorers — worked to answer the challenge. And some paid a terrible price.

Slideshow: ‘One giant leap for mankind’

Part 2: Three men rose into space on July 16, 1969, to begin the world's greatest adventure: Apollo 11. On July 20, while Michael Collins stayed aboard the Apollo command module in lunar orbit, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin headed for the surface in the lunar lander, known as Eagle. With the fuel supply dwindling, Armstrong realized that the computerized trajectory was sending them toward a field of boulders. He overrode the computer controls, setting the lander down on the lunar shore with 20 seconds’ worth of fuel to spare. The Eagle had landed. The space race was won. The images were icons for a new age: Earth and moon against the blackness of space ... a flag that falsely seemed to flutter in the vacuum ... bootprints in moondust. It was, as Armstrong said, “one giant leap for mankind” — a mental as well as a technological leap.

Slideshow: 'We leave as we came'

Part 3: Apollo 11 marked the achievement of Kennedy’s goal: America had proven its prowess in space. What else was there to prove?

For scientists, there was still a world of questions to be answered: How was the moon formed? What forces shaped it over billions of years? What could the moon tell us about Earth’s origins, and its fate? New tools, such as a lunar rover, were devised to make the quest more efficient.

But for astronauts, there were the same old risks, the same potential price - as demonstrated by the near-tragedy of Apollo 13. Further giant leaps would have to wait. After Apollo, America would have to take more gradual, safer steps.

When Apollo 17’s Gene Cernan stepped off the lunar soil in 1972, he knew it would be a long time before the next moonwalker arrived - although he never expected that the gap would extend beyond a quarter-century. “We leave as we came,” he said, “and God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”

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Photos: Classic Hubble Hits

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  1. Happy birthday, Hubble!

    The Hubble Space Telescope is celebrating its 20th birthday and we have some images taken by the iconic space observatory over the past two decades. Arp 148, shown here, is the staggering aftermath of an encounter between two galaxies, resulting in a ring-shaped galaxy and a long-tailed companion. This image is part of a collection of 59 images of merging galaxies taken by Hubble and released on its 18th anniversary. (NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Swirling merger

    AM 0500-620, located 350 million light-years away from Earth, consists of a highly symmetric spiral galaxy seen nearly face-on and partially backlit by a background galaxy. (NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Galactic duet

    This Hubble image displays a beautiful pair of interacting spiral galaxies with swirling arms. The smaller of the two, dubbed LEDA 62867 and positioned to the left of the frame, seems to be safe for now, but will probably be swallowed by the larger spiral galaxy, NGC 6786 (to the right) eventually. (NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Spiraling galaxies

    This image shows a Hubble view of Arp 272, a remarkable collision between two spiral galaxies, NGC 6050 and IC 1179. The galaxy cluster is part of the Great Wall of clusters and superclusters, the largest known structure in the Universe. The two spiral galaxies are linked by their swirling arms. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Tail of stars

    NGC 520 is the product of a collision between two disk galaxies that started 300 million years ago. It exemplifies the middle stages of the merging process: the disks of the parent galaxies have merged together, but the nuclei have not yet coalesced. It features an odd-looking tail of stars and a prominent dust lane that runs diagonally across the center of the image and obscures the galaxy. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Galactic merger

    This is the sharpest image yet from the Hubble Space Telescope of the merging Antennae galaxies. As the two galaxies smash together, billions of stars are born, mostly in groups and clusters of stars. The brightest and most compact of these are called super star clusters. (NASA / ESA / STSI via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Starburst galaxy

    This photo of the starburst galaxy, Messier 82 (M82) is the sharpest wide-angle view ever obtained of M82, a galaxy remarkable for its webs of shredded clouds and flame-like plumes of glowing hydrogen blasting out from its central regions. Located 12 million light-years away, it is also called the "Cigar Galaxy" because of the elongated elliptical shape produced by the tilt of its starry disk relative to our line of sight. (NASA / ESA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Stellar spiral

    This Hubble Space Telescope image released February 28, 2006, shows the spiral galaxy of the Messier 101. It is the largest and most detailed photo of a spiral galaxy that has ever been released from Hubble. (NASA / ESA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A starry night

    This image bears remarkable similarities to the Vincent van Gogh work, "Starry Night" complete with never-before-seen spirals of dust swirling across trillions of kilometres of interstellar space. The Advanced Camera for Surveys is Hubble's latest view of an expanding halo of light around a distant star, named V838 Monocerotis (V838 Mon). V838 Mon is located about 20,000 light-years away from Earth in the direction of the constellation Monoceros, placing the star at the outer edge of our Milky Way galaxy. (NASA / The Hubble Heritage Team) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A brilliant white

    NASA's Hubble Space Telescope trained its eye on one of the universe's most stately and photogenic galaxies, the Sombrero galaxy with the space telescope's Advanced Camera for Surveys , in May-June 2003 . The image of the galaxy's hallmark brilliant white, bulbous core is encircled by the thick dust lanes comprising the spiral structure of the galaxy. (NASA / The Hubble Heritage Team) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Glowing dust

    This dramatic image offers a peek inside a cavern of roiling dust and gas where thousands of stars are forming. The image, taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys aboard the Hubble Space Telescope, represents the sharpest view ever taken of this region, called the Orion Nebula. (NASA / ESA / STScI / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Pillars of creation

    Columns of cool hydrogen gas in the Eagle Nebula serve as the incubators for new stars - which look like tiny bubbles within the dark pillars. (NASA / AURA / STSCI) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Cosmic comets

    In the left image, the Cartwheel Galaxy looks like a wagon wheel in space. A more detailed image of the galaxy"s hub shows bright, comet-like clouds circling at nearly 700,000 mph. (NASA / AURA / STSCI) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A nebula's neon colors

    A nebula known as the Cygnus Loop is actually the expanding blast wave from a supernova. The blast has hit a cloud of dense interstellar gas-causing the gas to glow. (NASA / AURA / STSCI) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Helix Nebula

    Pictured is an image of the Helix Nebula showing tremendous detail of its mysterious gaseous knots. The cometary knots have masses similar to the Earth but have radii typically several times the orbit of Pluto. (NASA / AURA / STSCI) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Ballooning star

    Eta Carinae was the site of a giant outburst observed from Earth about 150 years ago, when it became one of the brightest stars in the southern sky. The star survived the explosion, which produced two billowing clouds of gas and dust. (NASA / AURA / STSCI) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Clouds of glory

    HH 32 is an excellent example of a "Herbig-Haro object," which is formed when young stars eject jets of material back into interstellar space. The jets plow into the surrounding nebula, producing strong shock waves that heat the gas and cause it to glow in different colors. (NASA / AURA / STSCI) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Eye of heaven

    This celestial object, with the scientific name MyCn18, looks like an eerie green eye staring out from two intersecting rings. But it's actually an intricately shaped "hourglass" nebula with a star at its center. (NASA / AURA / STSCI) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Stormy weather

    Temperature differences within interstellar clouds of gas and dust can result in structures reminiscent of Earth's tornadoes. Here are some twisters in the heart of the Lagoon Nebula. (NASA / AURA / STSCI) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Sunny side up

    The small spiral galaxy NGC 7742 is probably powered by a black hole residing in its core. The core of NGC 7742 is the large yellow "yolk" in the center of this fried-egg image. (NASA / AURA / STSCI) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Feeding a black hole

    A spiral-shaped disk of dust fuels what scientists believe is a black hole near the center of the galaxy NGC 4261. The material heats up and glows as it swirls around the black hole. (NASA / AURA / STSCI) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Light up the night

    Like lanterns in a cavern, scores of hot stars light up the gaseous walls of the nebula NGC 604. The nebula is a prime area for starbirth in an arm of the spiral galaxy M33. (NASA / AURA / STSCI) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Supernova circuits

    Three rings of glowing gas encircle the site of supernova 1987A, a star that was seen to explode in 1987. Though the rings appear to intersect, they are probably in three different planes. (NASA / AURA / STSCI) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Surrealistic Saturn

    A false-color image shows infrared light reflected from the planet Saturn. The different hues help scientists discern different levels of the planet's thick atmosphere. Two of Saturn's moons - Dione and Tethys - are visible as specks on the image. (NASA / AURA / STSCI) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Jupiter's aurora

    A curtain of glowing gas is wrapped around Jupiter's north pole like a lasso in a Hubble Space Telescope image captured in 1998. The curtain of light, called an aurora, is produced when high-energy electrons race along the planet's magnetic field and into the upper atmosphere. The electrons excite atmospheric gases, causing them to glow. A similar aurora crowns Earth's polar regions. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Cosmic Horsehead

    The Horsehead Nebula is one of the most photographed objects in the sky. The Hubble Space Telescope took a close-up look at this heavenly icon, revealing the cloud's intricate structure. This view of the horse's head was released April 24, 2001, to celebrate the observatory's 11th anniversary. Hubble was launched by the shuttle Discovery on April 24, 1990. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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