That’s right — the image I posted last time really is called the butterfly nebula! I love that so many of you coined the term as well, and that you had so many great ideas — you all have beautiful minds.
Scientists in Baltimore and around the world took this picture of the butterfly nebula earlier this year with the ever-new Hubble Space Telescope. The Hubble was launched nineteen years ago by a team of astronauts aboard the space shuttle. Most people know that that mission was soon followed by the first Hubble Servicing Mission, when astronauts were dispatched to “fix” the giant space mirror. But did you know that there have been four servicing missions since then?
In May, NASA launched seven astronauts on Servicing Mission 4 (SM-4, on STS-125) to upgrade the instruments on the Hubble Space Telescope. It’s not that anything untoward had happened to them. It’s just that their age, and rapidly advancing technology, had caught up to them. Imagine if you had to use the computer that you used nineteen years ago! The Hubble was the first astronomical observatory (what you and I call a telescope) to be launched with the specific intention of periodic upgrades, fixes, and replacing old technology with brand spankin’ new technology.
The new instruments, the Wide Field Camera 3 and the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, are more sensitive to light, which means they can take a picture of far-off star formations in a fraction of the time of the old cameras. Other instruments were brought back on-line and/or upgraded at the same time. As a result of all this hard work by untold numbers of engineers at Goddard Space Flight Center, astronauts and trainers at Johnson Space Center, launch teams at Kennedy Space Center, and scientists at the Space Telescope Science Institute and around the world, we here on Earth can now see these amazingly beautiful images from galaxies far, far away — and we can see nebulae like the butterfly nebula not just as it would look like to our eyes, but also as it would appear if we had “x-ray eyes” or could see in the infrared.
With instruments measuring the spectrum in so many different ways (wavelengths), scientists can really start to understand what’s happening out there, so many millions and millions of miles away. We can see pictures of stars being born. We can see pictures of stars dying. We can see the myriad ways in which they hang out together and change over time.
Everything changes, you know. Everything grows. We just have to know where to look, and to have the patience — and determination — to keep improving our instruments and techniques, and then the curiosity and the wisdom to begin to understand what it all means.
Questions? I know this isn’t anywhere near my usual topic, but it sure was fun writing about astrophysics and repair missions for a change. I’ll write about what you can see in the image tomorrow. What questions do you have? Ask anything you like … and if I don’t know the answers, I’ll find someone who does!