On Edwin Hubble's 125th birthday, his namesake looks to the stars

  • In celebration of its upcoming 25th anniversary in April the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has revisited one of its most iconic and popular images: the Eagle Nebula’s Pillars of Creation. This image shows the pillars as seen in visible light, capturing the multi-colored glow of gas clouds, wispy tendrils of dark cosmic dust, and the rust-colored elephants trunks of the nebula’s famous pillars. The dust and gas in the pillars is seared by the intense radiation from young stars and eroded by strong winds from massive nearby stars. With these new images comes better contrast and a clearer view for astronomers to study how the structure of the pillars is changing over time.
  • The Eagle Nebula’s Pillars of Creation. This image shows the pillars as seen in infrared light, allowing it to pierce through obscuring dust and gas and unveil a more unfamiliar view of the pillars. Hubble Space Telescope has revisited one of its most iconic and popular images: the Eagle Nebula’s Pillars of Creation. The original photo, taken in 1995, revealed never-before-seen details of three giant columns of cold gas bathed in the scorching ultraviolet light from a cluster of young, massive stars in a small region of the Eagle Nebula, or M16. Now, in celebration of its upcoming 25th anniversary in April, Hubble has revisited the famous pillars, providing astronomers with a sharper and wider view. As a bonus, the pillars have been photographed in near-infrared light, as well as visible light. The infrared view transforms the pillars into eerie, wispy silhouettes seen against a background of myriad stars.
  • This dramatic image offers a peek inside a cavern of roiling dust and gas where thousands of stars are forming. The image, taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) aboard NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, represents the sharpest view ever taken of this region, called the Orion Nebula, which is 1,500 light-years away and is the nearest star-forming region to Earth. More than 3,000 stars of various sizes appear in this image. Some of them have never been seen in visible light. These stars reside in a dramatic dust-and-gas landscape of plateaus, mountains, and valleys that are reminiscent of the Grand Canyon. 
  • Several million young stars vie for attention in this 2011 NASA Hubble Space Telescope image of a raucous stellar breeding ground in 30 Doradus, in the heart of the Tarantula Nebula. Early astronomers nicknamed the nebula because its glowing filaments resemble spider legs. 30 Doradus is the brightest star-forming region visible in a neighboring galaxy and home to the most massive stars ever seen. The nebula resides 170,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small, satellite galaxy of our Milky Way. No known star-forming region in our galaxy is as large or prolific as 30 Doradus. The composite image comprises one of the largest mosaics ever assembled from Hubble photos and includes observations taken by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 and Advanced Camera for Surveys. The Hubble image is combined with ground-based data of the Tarantula Nebula, taken with the European Southern Observatory’s telescope in Chile. 
  • Astronomers have used NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to photograph the iconic Horsehead Nebula in a new, infrared light to mark the 23rd anniversary of the famous observatory’s launch aboard the space shuttle Discovery on Apr. 24, 1990. Looking like an apparition rising from whitecaps of interstellar foam, the iconic Horsehead Nebula has graced astronomy books ever since its discovery more than a century ago. The nebula is a favorite target for amateur and professional astronomers. It is shadowy in optical light. It appears transparent and ethereal when seen at infrared wavelengths. The rich tapestry of the Horsehead Nebula pops out against the backdrop of Milky Way stars and distant galaxies that easily are visible in infrared light. This image was made in Apr. 2013.
  • Light echoes from Red Supergiant Star V838 Monocerotis, Dec. 2002.
  • This giant cluster, Pandora’s Cluster, appears to be the result of a simultaneous pile-up of at least four separate, smaller galaxy clusters. The crash took place over a span of 350 million years. The galaxies in the cluster make up less than five percent of its mass. The gas -€” around 20 percent -€” is so hot that it shines only in X-rays (colored red in this image). The distribution of invisible dark matter, making up around 75 percent of the cluster’s mass, is colored here in blue.
  • Arp 273. Galaxies collide! The titanic gravitational forces rip apart entire galaxies and they fall back together, forming completely different structures. Interacting galaxies provide some of the most interesting and varied visual forms known. Arp 273 is a particularly interesting example of this, with terrific form, a strong feeling of motion and power, yet extraordinarily graceful.
  • The brilliant, blue glow of young stars traces the graceful spiral arms of galaxy NGC 5584 in this Hubble Space Telescope image, released in March 2011. Thin, dark dust lanes appear to be flowing from the yellowish core, where older stars reside. The reddish dots sprinkled throughout the image are largely background galaxies. Among the galaxy’s myriad stars are pulsating stars called Cepheid variables and one recent Type Ia supernova, a special class of exploding stars. Astronomers use Cepheid variables and Type Ia supernovae as reliable distance markers to measure the universe’s expansion rate. NGC 5584 was one of eight galaxies astronomers studied to measure the universe’s expansion rate. In those galaxies, astronomers analyzed more than 600 Cepheid variables, including 250 in NGC 5584. Cepheid variables pulsate at a rate matched closely by their intrinsic brightness, making them ideal for measuring distances to relatively nearby galaxies. 
  • The Whirlpool Galaxy is a classic spiral galaxy, seen here in Feb. 2013. At only 30 million light years distant and fully 60 thousand light years across, M51, also known as NGC 5194, is one of the brightest and most picturesque galaxies on the sky. This image is a digital combination of a ground-based image from the 0.9-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory and a space-based image from the Hubble Space Telescope highlighting sharp features normally too red to be seen. 
  • A clash among members of a famous galaxy quintet - Stephan’s Quintet - reveals an assortment of stars across a wide color range, from young, blue stars to aging, red stars. Three of the galaxies have distorted shapes, elongated spiral arms, and long, gaseous tidal tails containing myriad star clusters, proof of their close encounters. Group member NGC 7320, at upper left, is actually a foreground galaxy about seven times closer to Earth than the rest of the group.
  • The spectacular new camera installed on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope during Servicing Mission 4 in May 2009 delivered the most detailed view of star birth in the graceful, curving arms of the nearby spiral galaxy M83. Nicknamed the Southern Pinwheel, M83 is undergoing more rapid star formation than our own Milky Way galaxy, especially in its nucleus. The sharp “eye” of the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) has captured hundreds of young star clusters, ancient swarms of globular star clusters, and hundreds of thousands of individual stars, mostly blue supergiants and red supergiants. The image, taken in August 2009, provides a close-up view of the myriad stars near the galaxy’s core, the bright whitish region at far right. WFC3’s broad wavelength range, from ultraviolet to near-infrared, reveals stars at different stages of evolution, allowing astronomers to dissect the galaxy’s star-formation history. 
  • The full beauty of nearby spiral galaxy M83 is unveiled in all of its glory in this Hubble Space Telescope mosaic image from Jan. 2014. The vibrant magentas and blues reveal the galaxy is ablaze with star formation. The galaxy, also known as the Southern Pinwheel, lies 15 million light-years away in the constellation Hydra. The Hubble photograph captures thousands of star clusters, hundreds of thousands of individual stars, and “ghosts” of dead stars called supernova remnants. The galactic panorama unveils a tapestry of the drama of stellar birth and death spread across 50,000 light-years. The newest generations of stars are forming largely in clusters on the edges of the dark spiral dust lanes. These brilliant young stellar groupings, only a few million years old, produce huge amounts of ultraviolet light that is absorbed by surrounding diffuse gas clouds, causing them to glow in pinkish hydrogen light.
  • Astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have assembled a comprehensive picture of the evolving universe -€” among the most colorful deep space images ever captured by the 24-year-old telescope. Researchers say the image, from a new study called the Ultraviolet Coverage of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, provides the missing link in star formation. The Hubble Ultra Deep Field 2014 image is a composite of separate exposures taken in 2002 to 2012 with Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys and Wide Field Camera 3. Astronomers previously studied the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (HUDF) in visible and near-infrared light in a series of images captured from 2003 to 2009. The HUDF shows a small section of space in the southern-hemisphere constellation Fornax. Now, using ultraviolet light, astronomers have combined the full range of colors available to Hubble, stretching all the way from ultraviolet to near-infrared light. 
  • This celestial object looks like a delicate butterfly, but it is far from serene. What resemble dainty butterfly wings are actually roiling cauldrons of gas heated to more than 36,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The gas is tearing across space at more than 600,000 miles an hour - fast enough to travel from Earth to the Moon in 24 minutes! A dying star that was once about five times the mass of the Sun is at the center of this fury. It has ejected its envelope of gases and is now unleashing a stream of ultraviolet radiation that is making the cast-off material glow. This object is an example of a planetary nebula, so-named because many of them have a round appearance resembling that of a planet when viewed through a small telescope. 
  • This trick that the planet is looking back at you is actually a Hubble treat: An eerie, close-up view of Jupiter, the biggest planet in our solar system. Hubble was monitoring changes in Jupiter’€™s immense Great Red Spot (GRS) storm on April 21, 2014, when the shadow of the Jovian moon, Ganymede, swept across the center of the storm. This gave the giant planet the uncanny appearance of having a pupil in the center of a 10,000 mile-diameter “eye.”€ For a moment, Jupiter “€œstared”€ back at Hubble like a one-eyed giant Cyclops. 
  • This image of a stellar Jet in Carina was captured by the Hubble WFC3 image in 2009, observed in ultraviolet/visible light.
  • The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has snapped a striking view of a multiple star system called XZ Tauri, its neighbour HL Tauri and several nearby young stellar objects in this image released on Nov. 6, 2014. XZ Tauri is blowing a hot bubble of gas into the surrounding space, which is filled with bright and beautiful clumps that are emitting strong winds and jets. These objects illuminate the region, creating a truly dramatic scene.
  • Resembling looming rain clouds on a stormy day, dark lanes of dust crisscross the giant elliptical galaxy Centaurus A. Hubble’s panchromatic vision, stretching from ultraviolet through near-infrared wavelengths, reveals the vibrant glow of young, blue star clusters and a glimpse into regions normally obscured by the dust. The warped shape of Centaurus A’s disk of gas and dust is evidence for a past collision and merger with another galaxy. The resulting shockwaves cause hydrogen gas clouds to compress, triggering a firestorm of new star formation. At a distance of just over 11 million light-years, Centaurus A contains the closest active galactic nucleus to Earth. 
  • Appearing like a winged fairy-tale creature poised on a pedestal, this object is actually a billowing tower of cold gas and dust rising from a stellar nursery called the Eagle Nebula. The soaring tower is 9.5 light-years or about 57 trillion miles high, about twice the distance from our Sun to the next nearest star. Stars in the Eagle Nebula are born in clouds of cold hydrogen gas that reside in chaotic neighborhoods, where energy from young stars sculpts fantasy-like landscapes in the gas. The tower may be a giant incubator for those newborn stars. A torrent of ultraviolet light from a band of massive, hot, young stars [off the top of the image] is eroding the pillar. The starlight also is responsible for illuminating the tower’s rough surface.
  • A 2006 image from NASA’s Spitzer and Hubble Space Telescopes looks more like an abstract painting than a cosmic snapshot. The magnificent masterpiece shows the Orion nebula in an explosion of infrared, ultraviolet and visible-light colors. It was “painted” by hundreds of baby stars on a canvas of gas and dust, with intense ultraviolet light and strong stellar winds as brushes. At the heart of the artwork is a set of four monstrously massive stars, collectively called the Trapezium. The swirls of green were revealed by Hubble’s ultraviolet and visible-light detectors. They are hydrogen and sulfur gases heated by intense ultraviolet radiation from the Trapezium’s stars. Wisps of red, also detected by Spitzer, indicate infrared light from illuminated clouds containing carbon-rich molecules called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. On Earth, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are found on burnt toast and in automobile exhaust.
  • The large Whirlpool Galaxy (left) is known for its sharply defined spiral arms. Their prominence could be the result of the Whirlpool’s gravitational tug-of-war with its smaller companion galaxy (right). Image captured in Apr. 2005. 
  • This Feb. 2014 image taken by astronomers in celebration of the 24th anniversary of the launch of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope (April 24, 1990) shows an infrared-light portrait of a roiling region of starbirth located 6,400 light-years away. The Hubble mosaic unveils a collection of carved knots of gas and dust in a small portion of the Monkey Head Nebula (also known as NGC 2174 and Sharpless Sh2-252). The nebula is a star-forming region that hosts dusky dust clouds silhouetted against glowing gas.
  • This is a spiral galaxy known as the Sombrero Galaxy seen nearly edge-on. The dark band across the center is the result of material in the flat disk of the galaxy obscuring the light of stars and gas behind it. The glowing bulge holds a population of stars largely different from those in the flat disk. Look close to see numerous globular clusters, which appear as slightly fuzzy stars, each of which is itself composed of many hundreds of thousands of stars.

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Since the Hubble Space Telescope’s launch into space on Apr. 25, 1990 from the space shuttle Discovery, scientists have been able to observe the universe in a way that has far surpassed the views provided by ground-based telescopes. From its position far above Earth, the Hubble telescope has collected troves of awe-inspiring images of the universe previously obscured by the planet’s atmosphere, which distorts and blocks the light that reaches our eyes. 

Over the years, Hubble has helped to shed light on many astronomical mysteries, including the age of the universe, the identity of quasars and the existence of dark matter. For the first time, galaxies, planets and stars assumed powerful visual representation on Earth, forever changing the way scientists and the general public study and understand space.

Named after Edwin Hubble, born Nov. 20, 1889, the 43.5-foot telescope is one of NASA’s most successful and long-running programs. Traveling at some 17,500 mph and powered by the sun, Hubble has helped to expand on its eponymous astronomer’s groundbreaking discovery that the universe is constantly expanding, lending support to the Big Bang theory. Hubble’s research also proved that other galaxies exist, leading scientists to hone in on the universe’s actual size by comparing their distance to Earth.

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography 

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