Spectacular revelations courtesy of Hubble
NASA celebrates Hubble’s birthday each year by giving us a gift — a new, breath-taking view of our universe. The latest birthday card: this elegant swirl of galaxies dancing in tandem deep in space. Last year — this bubble of stellar gases floating among the stars, like a diaphanous, cosmic jellyfish. Hubble has shown us radiant rose-shaped galaxies stretching across deep space; and dramatic towering clouds of gas teeming with the stuff of creation. Stars are born here. Year after year, in the infinite black canvas overhead, Hubble paints an ever-expanding picture of our universe — an awe-inspiring light show for us to admire … and for scientists to study.
AMBER STRAUGHN: I believe Hubble has been the single most transformative scientific instrument that we’ve ever built.
“Most transformative,” says NASA astrophysicist Amber Straughn, because Hubble keeps improving our understanding of the universe. She showed us what Hubble discovered after staring for days into what seemed to be an empty black patch — a deep, dark void — in outer space.
AMBER STRAUGHN: The original Hubble deep field is located just above the Big Dipper. It’s a part of the sky that most people are familiar with. It’s a blank piece of sky.
“I believe Hubble has been the single most transformative scientific instrument that we’ve ever built.”
BILL WHITAKER: So just nothing in here, just darkness.
AMBER STRAUGHN: Nothing at all. Complete darkness. And then, when we look at it with Hubble, what we see is thousands of galaxies.
BILL WHITAKER: Not just stars.
AMBER STRAUGHN: Right.
BILL WHITAKER: Galaxies.
AMBER STRAUGHN: Galaxies outside of our own. Something we never imagined.
BILL WHITAKER: Is it that Hubble just stares into that dark spot until the light penetrates and reveals itself?
AMBER STRAUGHN: That’s exactly what happens. It’s sometimes many, many, many days of just staring at one part of the sky and allowing the photons to collect on your detector.
BILL WHITAKER: And this is what’s revealed.
AMBER STRAUGHN: And this is what’s revealed.
But Hubble was just warming up. That was 22 years ago. Since then Hubble has stared deeper and longer into space with enhanced equipment.
AMBER STRAUGHN: In this particular image, there are 10,000 galaxies. So every single point of light is an individual galaxy, its own little island universe. And so this is a real visualization of the distances of these galaxies. So sort of like—
BILL WHITAKER: Sort of 3D.
AMBER STRAUGHN: –3D, like we’re flying though. So we can make these images 3D because we know how far away the galaxies are. What Hubble has essentially given us is the size of the universe. Hubble has taught us that the universe is filled with hundreds of billions of other galaxies.
And now the latest analysis of Hubble’s data reveals there could be more than two trillion galaxies—10 times more than previously thought. Typical galaxies, like our Milky Way, have 100 billion stars. That means the total number of stars—or suns out there—is 2, followed by 23 zeros. That’s called 200 sextillion. To get some sense of how many stars that is, we went to Adam Riess, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on Hubble.
ADAM RIESS: This is more stars in the visible universe than grains of sand on the beach.
BILL WHITAKER: –on Earth.
ADAM RIESS: On all the beaches on Earth.
BILL WHITAKER: And Hubble has shown us this?
ADAM RIESS: It has. In many cases, it has allowed us to see what some of the most distant galaxies look like and how many stars were in them. And we’ve been able to add it all up.
BILL WHITAKER: Hubble has been called a time machine — that it looks back in time. What has been the most astounding part of that for you?
ADAM RIESS: I study explosions of stars called supernovae. It’s like fireworks. It’s only visible for a short period of time, in this case, a few weeks. And that light has been traveling to us for 10 billion years. It began its journey when the Earth wasn’t even here, And over those 10 billion years, our planet formed. Life developed. We built the Hubble Space Telescope. We opened the aperture door. And in the last one-billionth of one percent of that journey that the light made, we opened the door just in time to catch it.
Hubble almost didn’t catch anything. The first pictures it sent back were blurry because of a microscopic flaw in the mirror. The Space Agency launched a daring mission to fix it.
Astronauts have made five trips to Hubble to repair and upgrade its equipment. John Grunsfeld, known as the Hubble repairman, flew three of those missions, to a telescope the size of a school bus, orbiting 300 miles above Earth.
JOHN GRUNSFELD: Just about anything that we can easily change and upgrade and fix has been fixed.
BILL WHITAKER: The workings of the telescope, all of that has been transformed.
JOHN GRUNSFELD: Yeah. It is like a new telescope.
BILL WHITAKER: On your last mission you come out of the airlock and you’ve got this big smile on your face.