Photos: Hubble’s new vision

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  1. This image, released April 22, captures the chaotic activity atop a three light-year tall pillar of gas and dust that is being eaten away by the brilliant light from nearby bright stars. The turbulent cosmic pinnacle lies within a tempestuous stellar nursery called the Carina Nebula, located 7,500 light-years away in the southern constellation Carina. The image celebrates the 20th anniversary of Hubble's launch and deployment into an orbit around Earth. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Butterfly in space

    A beautiful view of a star in its death throes is featured in a gallery of images sent back by the Hubble Space Telescope after its final shuttle servicing mission in May 2009. The planetary nebula NGC 6302, better known as the Butterfly Nebula or the Bug Nebula, is about 3,800 light-years away in the constellation Scorpius. The features that look like dainty butterfly wings are actually roiling cauldrons of gas heated to more than 36,000 degrees Fahrenheit, blasted away from a dying star bigger than the sun. This picture was taken by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3. (NASA / ESA / Hubble SM4 ERO) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Clash of galaxies

    A clash involving members of the famous galaxy group known as Stephan's Quintet reveals an assortment of stars across a wide color range, from young, blue stars to aging, red stars. The new image of the grouping was taken by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3. It's a bit of a misnomer to call this group a "quintet." Studies have shown that the galaxy NGC 7320, at upper left, is actually in the foreground, about seven times closer to Earth than the rest of the group. (NASA / ESA / Hubble SM4 ERO) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Pillar of creation

    Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 took this picture of a "pillar of creation" in the Carina Nebula, about 7,500 light-years away in the constellation Carina. Clouds of gas and dust conceal the cradles of newborn stars. (NASA / ESA / Hubble SM4 ERO) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Full of stars

    Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 captured this panoramic view of a colorful assortment of 100,000 stars residing in the crowded core of the globular cluster Omega Centauri. The full cluster, which lies about 16,000 light-years from Earth, boasts nearly 10 million stars. The stars in Omega Centauri are between 10 billion and 12 billion years old. (NASA / ESA / Hubble SM4 ERO) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Mist of stars

    An earlier image from Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys shows the globular cluster Omega Centauri and provides the context for the space telescope's new image of the same cluster. The blue-lined box indicates the area covered by the newly released image from Wide Field Camera 3: about 6.3 light-years or 1.4 arcminutes wide. (NASA / ESA / Hubble SM4 ERO) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Great Black Spot

    A dark smudge serves as the telltale sign of a cosmic collision in this picture of Jupiter, taken on July 23 by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3. Scientists believe the smudge was caused by debris from a comet or asteroid that plunged into Jupiter's atmosphere and disintegrated. (NASA / ESA / Hubble SM4 ERO) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. It's a wonderful whirl

    The barred spiral galaxy NGC 6217, which lies 6 million light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major, shines bright in the first image of a celestial object taken with Hubble's newly repaired Advanced Camera for Surveys. The camera was restored to operation in May during the shuttle Atlantis' final Hubble servicing mission. This image was assembled from data acquired on June 13 and July 8 during testing and calibration of the camera. (NASA / ESA / Hubble SM4 ERO) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Leftovers from a supernova

    The supernova remnant N132D resides in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small companion galaxy of the Milky Way about 170,000 light-years away. A visible-light image of N132D, taken in August with Hubble's new Wide Field Camera 3, reveals a crescent-shaped cloud of pink emission from hydrogen gas and soft purple wisps of glowing oxygen. Scientists probed these wisps with Hubble's Cosmic Origins Spectrograph and discovered pristine gas ejected by the supernova that had not yet mixed with surrounding gas. (NASA / ESA / Hubble SM4 ERO) Back to slideshow navigation
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msnbc.com
updated 4/23/2010 4:39:22 AM ET 2010-04-23T08:39:22

The team behind the Hubble Space Telescope is celebrating the orbiting observatory's 20th birthday with a picture that shows a cosmic pillar of gas and dust piled high in the Carina Nebula.

The image, captured in February by Hubble's brand-new Wide Field Camera 3, may look like a bizarre landscape from J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" fantasy. But the actual story is more fantastic than many works of fiction.

The three-light-year-tall pillar of star stuff is about 7,500 light-years away in the southern constellation Carina. Scorching radiation and streams of charged particles from super-hot newborn stars in the nebula are shaping and compressing the pillar, causing still more new stars to form within it.

Streamers of hot ionized gas can be seen flowing off the ridges of the structure. Wispy veils of gas and dust, illuminated by starlight, float around its towering peaks. The denser parts of the pillar are resisting being eroded by radiation, much as a towering butte in Utah's Monument Valley withstands erosion by water and wind.

Nestled inside the dense mountain are fledgling stars. Long streamers of gas can be seen shooting in opposite directions off the pedestal at the top of the image. Another pair of jets is visible at another peak near the center of the image. These jets (known as HH 901 and HH 902, respectively) are the signpost for new starbirth. The jets are launched by swirling disks around the young stars, which allow material to slowly accrete onto the stars' surfaces.

Interactive: The Hubble Space Telescope The colors in the composite image correspond to the glow of oxygen (blue), hydrogen and nitrogen (green), and sulfur (red).

The Carina Nebula image was released late Thursday to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Hubble's launch aboard the shuttle Discovery, on April 24, 1990. Since then, Hubble has beamed hundreds of thousands of images back to Earth — and provided the data for thousands of scientific papers on subjects ranging from the age of the universe to the detection of planets beyond our solar system.

Five space shuttle missions have been flown to repair the space telescope in orbit, starting with a 1993 mission that corrected Hubble's flawed optics. The latest service call was made in May 2009. During that flight, spacewalkers installed the Wide Field Camera 3 and the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, fixed two other observing instruments, and replaced worn-out batteries and gyroscopes.

NASA says last year's mission will stand as the final shuttle visit to Hubble. The repairs and upgrades should keep the telescope in operation until at least 2014.

This report includes information from the Space Telescope Science Institute.

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