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The greatest hits of the cosmos

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.
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.Arizona State University - NASA
/ Source: 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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.”