Dr. Thomas Swan is a published physicist who received his PhD in nuclear astrophysics from the University of Surrey.
Three Decades of Discoveries
The ongoing Hubble mission to photograph the exquisite natural artistry of the universe has undoubtedly succeeded in revealing the vast wonders of space and the myriad treasures that await humankind's journey into its depths.
The Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990 aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. It is 13 meters long, 2.4 meters wide (the width of its mirror), and it weighs 11 tonnes. It has been observing cosmic structures with its on-board cameras for more than three decades.
The Hubble Telescope's discoveries have surpassed our expectations and facilitated a greater understanding of the cosmos. We now have a more precise age for the universe (13.787 billion years) and we have discovered that it is expanding at an accelerating rate. Hubble has found that black holes reside at the center of most galaxies, that extrasolar planets exist around many stars, and that stellar nurseries and protoplanetary disks provide the building blocks for star systems such as our own.
From neutron stars to supernova explosions, Hubble has been our window into the universe. Courtesy of NASA and the ESA, this article will showcase the ten best Hubble Telescope pictures. As with every list of favorites, this is a personal assessment, but one which I hope you will enjoy!
1. Spiral Planetary Nebula, NGC 5189
This planetary nebula bears a striking resemblance to the number two. Planetary nebulae form when stars reach the end of their lives (although they don't actually contain planets). They are formed when medium-sized stars (such as our Sun) expel large quantities of their outer layers into space, as if choking on the remnants of their dwindling fuel. This material is heated by the stellar core, producing glowing, nebulous clouds. The dying star will eventually collapse, living out its remaining days as a super-dense white dwarf. The strange pattern in this image is thought to be formed by a hidden, orbiting star exerting a gravitational pull on the mass ejections.
2. Helix Nebula, NGC 7293
Sometimes called the "Eye of God," the Helix Nebula is only 700 light years from the Earth and is about 2.5 light years wide. To capture this large-scale image of the nebula, the Hubble Telescope was used in conjunction with the Cello Tololo Observatory in Chile. The Helix Nebula is a planetary nebula that is expanding at a rate of 31 km per second, with an age of about 10,000 years. The stellar core is particularly hot, giving the surrounding gases their bright glow. The core will eventually become a white dwarf. There may be a second disk, perpendicular to the one we can see, which may have been created by the presence of a second star.
3. Crab Nebula, NGC 1952
When a large star runs out of fuel and its stellar core collapses under its own gravity, there is an especially violent expulsion of its outer layers called a supernova explosion. The Crab Nebula is what this looks like. It is a supernova remnant that is expanding at a rate of 1,500 km per second. The stellar core was too big to become a white dwarf and it instead collapsed down to a super-dense neutron star (only 20 km across) called the Crab Pulsar, which is a strong emitter of X-rays and gamma rays.
The supernova event was first recorded by Chinese astronomers in 1054 who noticed a bright flash in the sky. John Bevis discovered the resultant nebula through his telescope in 1731. It exists within our Milky Way galaxy at a distance of 6,500 light years from Earth.
4. Tarantula Nebula, NGC 2070
At a width of 600 light years, the Tarantula nebula is the largest star-forming region in our local region of space. Also called "30 Doradus," it resides within a neighboring galaxy called the Large Magellanic Cloud at a distance of 160,000 light years from Earth. It is so bright that if it were within our own galaxy, it would cast shadows on Earth. The large glowing fibers that meander through the nebula resemble spider's legs, giving the structure its name. These wispy clouds are caused by the radiative pressure of massive stars that have formed within the nebula, which blow the hydrogen gas in all directions and carve out pockets of space around themselves. Thus, many stars in the nebula are visible to Hubble.
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5. Orion Nebula, NGC 1976
The Orion Nebula is 1,344 light years from Earth and 24 light years wide. It appears slightly south of Orion's Belt and is visible to the naked eye. The nebula is a stellar nursery with about 700 stars in the process of forming. Upwards of 150 protoplanetary disks have been observed by Hubble, revealing the regularity with which planets are formed around stars in the universe.
The Orion nebula is known for its beautiful spectrum of colors. The red coloration is caused by heated hydrogen gas, and the violet by radiation from large O-type stars within deeper regions of the nebula. The slight green coloration is caused by heated oxygen gas interacting in a way that can only occur in the deep vacuum of space.
6. Colliding Galaxies, NGC 2207 and IC 2163
These colliding spiral galaxies were discovered in 1835 by John Hershal. The Hubble Telescope took this picture of them in 1999. They are presently two separate galaxies, but in a billion years they will become a single elliptical galaxy. The larger galaxy (NGC 2207) is currently "tidal stripping" stars and materials from the smaller galaxy. They are 81 million light years from Earth.
7. Arp 273, or UGC 1810 and UGC 1813
Collectively known as Arp 273, the larger of these two galaxies is UGC 1810 and the smaller is UGC 1813. Together they resemble an enormous cosmic rose, sitting in space, 300 million light years from Earth. It is theorized that the smaller galaxy passed through the larger one, with their gravitational interaction causing it to align vertically in the picture. This interaction may also explain the downward drift of the larger galaxy's outer spiral arm.
8. Hubble Extreme Deep Field
NASA and the ESA released this picture in September 2012. It might not look like much, but each of those points of light is an entire galaxy containing billions of stars. You can even see the spiral arms on some of them. There are about 15,000 galaxies in the image with the faintest being one ten billionth of what the human eye is capable of visualizing. To capture this "extreme deep field" (XDF), the Hubble Telescope focused on a small point in space for 23 days. Light from the farthest galaxies had been travelling for 13.2 billion years before reaching the telescope, meaning the XDF is a view into the earliest billion years of the universe's existence.
9. Carina Nebula, Mystic Mountain, NGC 3372
The Carina Nebula is 7,500 light years from Earth and is four times larger than the better known Orion Nebula. The portion of the nebula displayed in this image is called Mystic Mountain because of its extraordinary pillars of gas. It is a region of intense star birth, with several large O-type stars already formed (the hottest and brightest kind). Mystic mountain is a cloud of cool hydrogen that is 3 light years in height and is gradually being worn away by the radiative pressure of several stars within. Powerful gas jets emitted from nascent stars stream out of the peaks.
10. Whirlpool Galaxy, NGC 5194
Although this image of the Whirlpool galaxy is well-known, it is undoubtedly the most spectacular panorama of natural beauty observed by humanity. The NGC 5194 spiral galaxy is about 23 million light years from Earth and has a width of 43,000 light years. Seen here with its smaller companion (NGC 5195), it can be easily seen with Earth-based telescopes, and it was discovered in 1773 by Charles Messier.
The Whirlpool galaxy's spiral structure is thought to be caused by a gravitational interaction with NGC 5195, which likely passed through its disk around 500 million years ago. The spiral structure produces dense regions of hydrogen gas, leading to a high rate of star formation and, thus, the glow of its spiral arms. The whirlpool galaxy is believed to have a black hole at its core.
Wondrous Cosmic Behemoths
The narratives of exploding stars and tumbling galaxies provided by astrophysicists from around the world add to the majestic natural beauty that has been revealed to us by Hubble. I hope you enjoyed learning about these wonders of the universe as much as I did. The selections were, of course, a matter of opinion. I invite you to explore the Hubble Telescope's online gallery to find hundreds more.
© 2013 Thomas Swan
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on April 06, 2013:
Thanks madscientist! You've picked a great subject in my opinion! Astrophysics is where it's at. I got pulled into the world of nuclear physics and just lost interest after my doctorate. Now I'm more into psychology. I liked your inspirational hub about physics education. Thanks for visiting!
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on April 06, 2013:
Cheers cydro! The Helix Nebula is a planetary nebula from a star that died and became a white dwarf, so not too surprising. It's great that such a beautiful nebula formed so close to Earth though! Yea, chemistry was good for me because I was a geek for remembering the different elements, but a couple of really awful chemistry teachers turned me off to the subject. I had a great physics teacher, and after reading `Cosmos' my mind was made up. I enjoyed your hub on moons by the way. Thanks for alerting me to your work with your comment here!
Dani Alicia from Myrtle Beach, SC on April 05, 2013:
I love this article! I'm majoring in Physics with a minor in astronomy and someday maybe I'll discover some celestial body or something! Great job and great photos!
Blake Atkinson from Kentucky on April 04, 2013:
Friggin awesome hub.
I can't believe the Helix Nebula is only 700 light years away. I thought nebulas were more sparse than that.
I feel like we're similar people...I switched from chemistry to physics halfway through my college career.
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on April 03, 2013:
Thank you billdo1603, sparkster, and livingsta!
Livingsta, I agree that astrophysics is where it really gets fascinating. To comprehend the full majesty of what we're looking at, we must know how big it is, how it became what it is, what it's made of, etc. Such direction is needed for one's imagination to truly flourish. I first became interested when I read Cosmos by Carl Sagan. Without that I probably would have studied Chemistry instead of Physics! Thanks for the vote, share and pin. Much appreciated!
livingsta from United Kingdom on April 03, 2013:
Awesome. Astronomy has always fascinated me. I took extra interest in astronomy after I read about the Black holes when in college. We had a unit on Astrophysics and that's when my enthusiasm grew and I did read some books, but over the recent years, I have lost touch.
This one is a very interesting hub. The Helix Nebula, gosh looks exactly like an eye. Thank you for sharing this hub with us.
Votes up, sharing and pinning.
Marc Hubs from United Kingdom on April 03, 2013:
A beautiful and fascinating hub indeed.
billd01603 from Worcester on April 02, 2013:
Wow! What incredible photos! That universe sure is amazing. Thanks for posting this Thomas Swan. Voted up and awesome!