IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Hubble’s latest, greatest views revealed

Astronomers unveiled the latest batch of Hubble's greatest hits on Wednesday, all taken since the space telescope was upgraded in May during NASA's final shuttle servicing mission.

Topping the list of new views are colorful pictures of a clashing galactic quintet, a densely packed star cluster, an eerie "pillar of creation" and the famed Butterfly Nebula.

"This marks a new beginning for Hubble," Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement. "The telescope was given an extreme makeover and now is significantly more powerful than ever, well-equipped to last into the next decade."

NASA released the new views during a news conference at its Washington headquarters, with Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., as a guest of honor. Weiler paid tribute to her as the "godmother to the Hubble."

Mikulski returned the favor: "I want to say, on behalf of the American people, 'Thank you,'" she told the dignitaries at NASA Headquarters.

The agency's administrator, Charles Bolden, noted that thousands of scientists and engineers contributed to the space telescope's success. As an astronaut back in 1990, Bolden was the pilot on the shuttle mission that put the telescope into orbit. "Hubble truly has a special place in my heart," he said. "Hubble is a teachable moment in unparalleled teamwork."

Bolden said the latest upgrades will expand upon Hubble's success. "After almost 20 years of service, our view of the universe and our place in it will never be the same," he said.

Hubble's suite of new instruments allows it to study the universe across a wide swath of the light spectrum, from ultraviolet all the way to near-infrared. Spectroscopic observations from Hubble have probed the "cosmic web" structure of the universe and have mapped the distribution of elements fundamental to life.

"We couldn't be more thrilled with the quality of the images from the new Wide Field Camera 3 and repaired Advanced Camera for Surveys, and the spectra from the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph and the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph," Keith Noll, leader of a team at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore that planned the early release observations, said in a statement. "The targets we've selected to showcase the telescope reveal the great range of capabilities in our newly upgraded Hubble."

The scientists highlighted four images from Wide Field Camera 3, Hubble's new workhorse:

  • A colorful look at the Butterfly Nebula, also known as the Bug Nebula, a dying star surrounded by "wings" of glowing gas.
  • A close-up of the core of the Omega Centauri globular cluster, glittering with thousands of ancient stars.
  • A new look at Stephan's Quintet, a set of clashing galaxies.
  • A portrait of a dust pillar shrouding starbirth in the Carina Nebula.

Other instruments provided fresh perspectives on far-off galaxies and new revelations about the cosmic stuff that exploding stars leave behind.

Taken together, the results showed off the success of the shuttle Atlantis' servicing mission in May. That mission represented NASA's fifth and final scheduled visit to the 19-year-old telescope.

Two new instruments, Wide Field Camera 3 and Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, were installed. Two others, the Advanced Camera for Surveys and Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, were repaired at the circuit board level. Mission scientists also announced that the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer, or NICMOS, was brought back into operation during the three months of calibration and testing.

In addition to the scientific upgrade, astronauts replaced Hubble's gyroscopes and batteries, with the aim of keeping the telescope in operation until at least 2014.

Atlantis spacewalker Mike Massimino said his first reaction when he saw the latest pictures from the space telescope was relief. "Thank God, we didn't break it," he told reporters.

The astronaut corps' self-described "Hubble-hugger," John Grunsfeld, recalled that he and his crewmates had to cope with a few curveballs during the farewell mission.

During the first of the five spacewalks, rookie astronaut Drew Feustel had to put more oomph than recommended into twisting a ratchet to free a stubborn bolt. Later in the mission, Massimino wrenched a balky handrail off the space telescope with brute force while Feustel relayed instructions.

"Never have so many scientists owed so much to two guys who fixed a stuck bolt," quipped University of Virginia astronomer Bob O'Connell, who heads the science oversight committee for Wide Field Camera 3.

O'Connell and other scientists said the upgraded Hubble exceeded their expectations.

"On this mission we wanted to replenish the 'tool kit' of Hubble instruments on which scientists around the world rely to carry out their cutting-edge research," said David Leckrone, senior project scientist for Hubble at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "Prior to this servicing mission, we had only three unique instrument channels still working, and today we have 13. I'm very proud to be able to say, 'mission accomplished.'"

Although this was Hubble's official coming-out party, the first image from the upgraded telescope was actually released in July, showing the aftermath of Jupiter's collision with a suspected comet.

Hubble now enters a phase of full science observations. Observations will range from studying the population of Kuiper Belt objects at the fringe of the solar system to surveying the birth of planets around other stars and probing the composition and structure of extrasolar planet atmospheres.

There are also ambitious plans to take the deepest-ever near-infrared portrait of the universe, revealing infant galaxies that existed when the universe was less than 500 million years old. Other planned observations will attempt to shed light on the behavior of dark energy, a repulsive force that is pushing the universe apart at an ever-faster rate.

This report includes information from NASA. Keep tabs on MSNBC science editor Alan Boyle via Cosmic Log, Twitter or Facebook.

More on Hubble | Atlantis servicing mission