September 9, 2009
Astronomers declared NASA's Hubble Space Telescope a fully rejuvenated observatory with the September 9 release of observations from four of its six operating science instruments.
Topping the list of new views are colorful, multi-wavelength pictures of far-flung galaxies, a densely packed star cluster, an eerie "pillar of creation," and a "butterfly" nebula. 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. In addition, scientists released spectroscopic observations that slice across billions of light-years to probe the cosmic-web structure of the universe and map the distribution of elements that are fundamental to life as we know it.
"This marks a new beginning for Hubble," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters in Washington. "The telescope was given an extreme makeover and now is more powerful than ever, well-equipped to last into the next decade."
The new instruments are more sensitive to light and, therefore, will improve Hubble's observing efficiency significantly. It is able to complete observations in a fraction of the time that was needed with prior generations of Hubble instruments. The space observatory today is significantly more powerful than it ever has been.
"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," said Keith Noll, leader of a team at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which planned the early release observations. "The targets we've selected to showcase the telescope reveal the great range of capabilities in our newly upgraded Hubble."
These results are compelling evidence of the success of the STS-125 servicing mission
in May, which has brought the space observatory to the apex of its scientific performance. Two new instruments, the Wide Field Camera 3 and Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, were installed and two others, the Advanced Camera for Surveys and Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, were repaired at the circuit board level. Mission scientists also announced Wednesday that the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer was brought back into operation during the three months of calibration and testing.
"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.'"
For the past three months, scientists and engineers at the Space Telescope Science Institute and Goddard have been focusing, testing, and calibrating the instruments. Hubble is one of the most complex space telescopes ever launched, and the Hubble servicing mission astronauts performed major surgery on the 19-year-old observatory's multiple systems. This orbital verification phase was interrupted briefly July 19 to observe Jupiter in the aftermath of a collision with a suspected comet.
Hubble now enters a phase of full science observations. The demand for observing time will be intense. Observations will range from studying the population of Kuiper Belt objects at the fringe of our solar system to surveying the birth of planets around other stars and probing the composition and structure of extrasolar planet atmospheres. There are ambitious plans to take the deepest near-infrared portrait of the universe to reveal never-before-seen 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.