NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is, incredibly, about to reach its 28th birthday. And to celebrate, NASA has released a stunning view of a nebula inside our galaxy snapped by the lucky observatory.
Hubble was launched on April 24, 1990, and despite some initial hiccups, it has ultimately become a huge success story. In its 28 years in orbit, it has made 163,500 orbits of our planet and snapped more than a million images.
This latest image shows us the Lagoon Nebula, a vast stellar nursery 55 light-years across that’s located 4,000 light-years from our planet. It’s bright and big enough to be seen with a pair of binoculars in the night sky, but you need Hubble to get detail like this below.
The image is simply a wondrous cacophony of dust and gas, all dictated by the actions of an extremely violent star at the core of the nebula.
“At the center of the photo, a monster young star 200,000 times brighter than our Sun is blasting powerful ultraviolet radiation and hurricane-like stellar winds, carving out a fantasy landscape of ridges, cavities, and mountains of gas and dust,” NASA said.
That giant star is called Herschel 36, which is 32 times more massive and eight times hotter than our Sun, and it’s ejecting a huge cocoon of material, radiation, and stellar winds. These are pushing the surrounding dust away in sheets, which gives the nebula – first spotted by Italian astronomer Giovanni Battista Hodierna in 1654 – its unique lagoon shape.
The activity has also punched holes in the clouds of the nebula, allowing us to see inside. The clouds are constantly moving, with the activity of the star suppressing star formation. But on the dark edges of the nebula, new stars are forming.
Around Herschel 36 are two rope-like structures, measuring half a light-year in length each. Temperature differences in the clouds are thought to give them their twisting shape. Eventually, the clouds will collapse and new stars will form.
It’s a fitting image for Hubble to celebrate its birthday with. The telescope is still going strong, with no sign of the mission ending any time soon. But it is slowly falling towards our planet, and unless it’s boosted to a higher orbit, it will probably re-enter our atmosphere and be destroyed by the mid-2030s.
Until then, we’ll get plenty more chances to enjoy its stunning work. It has traveled 6 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) and counting, sending 153 terabytes of data back to Earth in the process, leading to 15,500 scientific papers. And there is much still to look forward to.