Butterfly Nebula

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!

8 Responses to Butterfly Nebula

  1. yasmara says:

    Nova recently aired a show that followed the most recent Hubble telescope repair, with a lot of footage of the astronauts training for the repair mission & then footage from space of the actual repairs. My space-mad 4 1/2 year old son LOVES it and we have watched it several times. They show a brief slideshow of new Hubble images at the end as well. I highly recommend checking it out – very accessible for kids (probably more appropriate for those older than 4 unless they want to grow up to be an astronaut like mine does).

  2. iMuslimah says:

    The was a really neat post. How did you get started on this path?

  3. Sarah says:

    Love the astrophysics topic for a change. makes me feel like I can get smarter just by reading my favorite blogs! Can’t wait to hear more.

  4. Carrie says:

    This was very interesting to read. Post more on astrophysics in the future. A couple of questions that I have are: How does a star die?, Is there any chance that the dying star-butterfly nebula will eventually become a black hole?

  5. upsidebackwards says:

    Hooray for more astrophysics in daily life! Do we have any idea what causes such a shape in the nebula? What causes the hour-glass effect in the middle? Very intriguing.

  6. Kay Lynn says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post and would enjoy reading more on this subject in the future. What a beautiful nebula!

  7. Amelie says:

    Thanks for sharing, that was really interesting!

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