Stunning new image marks Hubble’s 30th birthday

Cosmic reef: Astronomers have compared the telescope’s latest image to an undersea world. © Nasa

Should learning about space make us feel calmer? The world’s most famous telescope shows us the true scale of the Universe. Some people think this is comforting; others find it terrifying.

Alone in the vast emptiness of space, the Hubble telescope turned 30 this weekend with no candles to blow out or cake to cut.

Instead, astronomers on the ground released yet another extraordinary image taken by the telescope to mark the occasion.

Since its launch into orbit on 24 April 1990, the telescope has taken more detailed images of space than scientists ever thought possible, expanding our understanding of the Universe we live in.

Unlike telescopes on the ground, the Hubble takes images from outside Earth’s atmosphere, which makes them more accurate.

Like many scientific achievements, the Hubble project nearly ended in disaster.

A tiny fleck of paint on a tool had misshapen the telescope’s mirror: the pictures it took were badly out of focus. At the time, the media called it a $1.5-billion failure.

But eventually, in 1993, astronauts in space fixed the problem. It was the world’s most complicated optician’s appointment.

Since then, the telescope has made amazing discoveries, including proving the existence of black holes and exoplanets.

In the past, scientists could only estimate that the Universe was between 10 and 20 billion years old. Now, thanks to the Hubble, they know the true figure is 13.8 billion years.

For author Naomi Alderman, the telescope’s images provide a vital sense of perspective on our own lives, especially for those without religion.

In 1995, the telescope was pointed at a tiny piece of apparently empty sky for 10 days.

Astonishingly, in the “blank” sky, it found thousands of galaxies, each containing about 100 billion stars, which could in turn each be orbited by planets similar to Earth.

In comparison to such a vast expanse, everyday human problems seem less huge and overwhelming.

Not everyone agrees. For some, knowing just how small we are is terrifying.

But others think it is important to understand that whatever differences we have, everyone is together on one tiny planet.

Indeed, Alderman even credits the famous Earthrise photo, taken by the Apollo 8 mission in 1968, and displaying the fragility of the Earth, for inspiring the movement to take care of our environment.

So, should learning about space make us feel calmer?

In a galaxy far far away

Yes, say some. The Hubble was a triumph of human achievement. Launched just as the internet was taking off around the globe, its images captured the popular imagination. It provides people with some much needed perspective, showing how small human problems are compared to the vastness of the Universe. Learning about space shows us why it is important to look after our Earth.

No, say others. It is almost impossible to comprehend such a vast sense of scale. In comparison to the Universe’s 13.8 billion years of existence, a human lifespan of even 100 years (for the lucky few) is terrifyingly insignificant. Learning about space may help some, but millions of people still turn to religion and faith to help them deal with their sense of insignificance.

You Decide

  1. Why are people so fascinated by what might be out in space?
  2. Is the knowledge that Earth is just a tiny dot in a vast Universe comforting or terrifying to you?

Activities

  1. Do you think there might be life in another galaxy? Draw a picture showing what you think a creature living in space might look like.
  2. Research the Hubble telescope’s biggest discoveries. Write one side explaining which one you think made the greatest contribution to understanding our place in the Universe and why. Ask other people in your house if they agree with you or not.

Some People Say...

“Space is to place as eternity is to time.”

Joseph Joubert (1754-1824), French essayist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
For most of human history, all humanity knew about the Universe is what could be seen with the naked eye. Then, in 1610, Galileo pointed a telescope towards the sky. He saw craters and mountains on the Moon, as well as a ribbon of light arching across the sky called the Milky Way. It is generally agreed that the Hubble telescope has had an enormous impact on our understanding of the Universe we live in, and our tiny place within it.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is about how space exploration helps our struggle to protect the Earth. Naomi Alderman thinks that an appreciation of context – of our place in the greater Universe – will inspire us to take care of the Earth. But others say the value of space exploration is chiefly about gazing outwards – about looking for new planets to colonise as the population on Earth continues to grow.

Word Watch

Astronomers
Scientists who studies the stars, planets, and other natural objects in space. The Hubble telescope was named after Edwin Hubble (1889-1953), a famous astronomer who determined the rate of the Universe’s expansion.
Atmosphere
The envelope of gases surrounding the Earth or another planet.
Black holes
A region of space where gravity is so strong that nothing can escape from it. Scientists cannot directly see black holes, so they look at the objects being pulled around them instead.
Exoplanets
Planets that orbit a star other than our sun in a different solar system to our own. Scientists think that exoplanets are the best hope for finding other intelligent life in the Universe.
Empty sky
The tiny piece of sky the Hubble telescope photographed in 1995 is astonishingly small – even smaller than the area you might cover with your little fingernail if you held it up to the sky.
Earthrise
The Earthrise photo shows the Earth, from the moon, rising across the lunar landscape. The picture has been described as “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken”.

Subjects

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