Now that the newly refurbished Hubble Space Telescope is back up and running, with its first images unveiled last week, the astronomical community — and the public at large — has a bevy of new images and observations to look forward to.
In fact some observations have already produced extraordinary results, not yet announced, from the earliest epoch of the universe, according to a Hubble project scientist.
Hubble was revamped during a 13-day shuttle mission in May that gave the 19-year-old telescope a new camera and super-sensitive spectrograph and repaired one of its old cameras and spectrographs, as well as giving it new batteries and gyroscopes, which help it point accurately at celestial objects.
These upgrades, performed by the Atlantis astronaut crew, are expected to extend the space telescope's life through at least 2014, if not longer.
Hubble has already started making new observations after its three-month checkout phase, with the first images showing distant clusters of galaxies, an eerie "pillar of creation," a densely packed star cluster, and a "butterfly" nebula.
Those observations were the first of many that Hubble will make over the coming year as part of Hubble's Cycle 17. During about 3,400 orbits, Hubble will make observations for 228 programs pre-selected through a peer-reviewed process and submitted by astronomers from all over the world, said David Leckrone, senior project scientist for Hubble at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
The pièce de resistance of Hubble's new mission, perhaps, is the planned new Deep Field image, to be taken with the newly installed Wide Field Camera 3. Hubble has already made two such mosaics, which have pushed back astronomers' view ever closer to the Big Bang, which is the theoretical beginning of the universe. The new Deep Field will continue that effort in the hopes of seeing some of the earliest galaxies or proto-galaxies in the universe.
"The idea is just to push further back in time and farther out across the universe and get as close to the Big Bang as we can," Leckrone said.
Hubble has already completed the first set of observations needed to make this image. The rest will come in a year when the telescope is again in the same orbital configuration. But the first observations will likely already give scientists plenty to work with.
"I think they'll have something to say after this first batch," Leckrone said. "The rumblings I'm getting are that they already have extraordinary results."
Leckrone says that the results from the new camera and spectrograph already sound stunning and that the instrument is more sensitive than mission scientists had expected.
"My mouth is watering, I can't wait to hear what they find," he told SPACE.com.
Hubble's instruments will also be put to use trying to unravel the mystery of dark energy.
A big question in both astronomy and physics is the nature of dark matter and dark energy, Leckrone said: "What's causing the universe's expansion to speed up, to accelerate?
One of the ways in which Hubble will investigate this mystery is by refining astronomers' understanding of Type 1A supernovas, the so-called standard candles that tell how far apart galaxies are from each other — a key to understanding how fast they are speeding away from each other.
Another way the space telescope will help tackle this question is by helping to further refine the Hubble constant, the measure of how fast the universe is expanding today.
"If you can get the error bars on that way, way down to just a few percent, then that in itself will tell you something about dark energy," Leckrone said.
The brand-new Cosmic Origins Spectrograph will also lend a hand in this effort by probing filaments of dark matter and the ordinary matter that clings to it and building a 3-D map of matter in the universe, said James Green, the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph principal investigator at the University of Colorado.
Because these filaments will likely be probed out to a distance of 7 to 8 billion light-years, it will also help astronomers better understand the conditions of the early universe.
"So we're going to understand an awful lot more about how galaxies formed and evolved over time," Leckrone said. This topic is another theme of Hubble's new research efforts; more specifically, understanding how galaxies are born and grow will help us understand the development of our own Milky Way, as well as our own star and solar system.
"What we're doing is piecing together the whole family history of galaxies," Leckrone said.
A plan to map the orbits of Milky Way satellite galaxies will also shed light on our family history (as well as a more accurate measure of the Milky Way's mass and the amount of dark matter in and around it).
Hubble will also continue its work observing extrasolar planets — a capability of the telescope only recently discovered.
One of the main reasons mission managers wanted to bring the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) back online was so that it could go back to work on these exoplanets," Leckrone said.
STIS and Hubble's Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS) have both detected exoplanets and NICMOS event detected organic molecules on one, "and that was very exciting," Leckrone said.
Right before the servicing mission, Hubble detected a planet around the hot star Fomalhaut. The team that found the planet hope to observe it again when NICMOS comes back online (as it is expected to in a few months).
But those aren't the only instruments that will be probing planets outside our solar system.
"The Cosmic Origins Spectrograph is keen on getting their oar into this water with their very special capabilities," Leckrone said.
Planned research programs will also look at how planets form, by examining the material around stars to learn more about the environment in which planets might arise.
Closer to home
Hubble will also be investigating mysteries closer to home, particularly the objects of the Kuiper belt, including Pluto. Relatively little is known about the outer reaches of our solar system and its denizens.
"We don't know what's out there in our own solar system at the farthest reaches of our own solar system," Leckrone said. But with Hubble, "we have the really good tools to go look at these very cold objects and learn a lot more about how many of them there are and what properties they have and what are things like out in the outer suburbs of our own solar system."
Hubble's refurbishment also hits home in a different way: After 33 years of working on Hubble (and 40 years at NASA), Leckrone is retiring on Oct. 2. But Leckrone is happy to go out on a high note.
"I feel like the baseball player who is leaving while his batting average is still high. I could hang around longer, but this is the highest of high notes, this is the highest pinnacle that I will have reached in my career, after 33 years on Hubble," Leckrone said. "So I think this is a great time to go out, and it's a great time to go try do some other things, including maybe getting into some research with Hubble."
Asked what of Hubble's new projects he was most excited about, Leckrone said, "The deep field is what I'm really keen on."
And Leckrone is happy with the final version of Hubble that NASA has given the world.
"I think we've done our job, providing the very best modern, cutting-edge tools, and a whole bunch of different tools, of different kinds, that will give the scientific community around the world the best possible opportunity to succeed," he said. "Now it's up to [astronomers] to go do it. Let's go, let's get it done."