It Was Twenty Years Ago Today…

When Hubble Space Telescope Went out to Play

It is really hard to believe that it’s been twenty years since Hubble Space Telescope was launched. But, it’s true. On April 24, 1990, this venerable and famous observatory was lofted into orbit on what was going to be an 10- to 15-year orbital voyage of cosmic discovery. Here we are, a couple of decades later, still gaping at gorgeous Hubble images. For me, it’s something of a shocking milestone. It means that 20 years ago, I was just getting ready to enter graduate school. I was on an HST team at the University of Colorado, and only two years later, I was writing the first major book (with my co-author Jack Brandt) about Hubble science.  It seems like only a couple of years ago.  And, I’m sure for most of the HST scientists, it seems like only yesterday.  Even though its official anniversary is tomorrow, I wanted to kick off celebrating it today… hence the title.

Mystic Mountain, a starbirth cloud as seen by Hubble Space Telescope

To celebrate the twentieth year of discovery, the Space Telescope Science Institute has released this spectacular image called “Mystic Mountain“. It’s a three light-year-long pillar of gas and dust that lies about 7,500 light-years away in the Carina Nebula. This towering pillar is is being eaten away by the light and radiation of hot, young nearby stars. There are also stars inside this pillar — newborns that are radiating from within and eating their way out of their birth cocoons. Those same baby stars are sending jets of material out, which you can see at the top of the pillar.

Starbirth region images are some of my favorites from Hubble. They hold the secret promise of continual star life in the universe. And, the more we study them, the more we learn about the origins of our own Sun and planets, some 4.6 billion years ago — in a cloud of gas and dust that may very well have looked a lot like this one!

I think it’s particularly poignant that this stunning image should come out now that HST is forever beyond our reach in orbit around Earth. It has extended our reach out to the limits of the observable universe.  It was launched with all the good wishes and hopes of thousands of scientists. It has suffered problems, but it has been serviced several times — each time bring the telescope back in better shape than before. A whole generation of children has grown to adulthood knowing and loving the HST images. For them, there’s never been a time when we didn’t have at least one orbiting telescope showing us the wonders of the universe.

Hubble will continue to peer at the cosmos, bringing us views like this one. It will extend our gaze to the most distant galaxies and the earliest stars. And, eventually, when it stops working and can no longer be repaired, it will go down in history as one of the greatest, most eye-opening observatories ever built.  So, here’s to Hubble! Let’s celebrate its wonderful discoveries over the next few days and salute the thousands of people whose work on Hubble have given us the cosmos — for less cost to you and me than a penny we might pick up from a sidewalk.