Arthur J. Villasanta – Fourth Estate Contributor
Washington, DC, United States (4E) – The legendary Hubble Space Telescope orbiting the Earth at a distance of some 560 kilometers from the planet’s surface silently celebrated its 28th anniversary as the most important scientific tool for discovering more of the Universe than ever before.
Operated by NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), Hubble was launched into Low Earth Orbit on April 24, 1990 and deployed the next day. It entered service on May 20. The space telescope is equipped with a 2.4 meter mirror and four main instruments that observes the Universe in the near ultraviolet, visible and near infrared spectra
It spent its 28th year in space observing the colorful cloud of glowing interstellar gas that is the Lagoon Nebula, a vast stellar nursery some 4,100 light years from Earth. This nebula is a region full of intense activity, with violent winds from hot stars, swirling pillars of gas and relentless star formation occurring within a chaotic swirl of gas and dust. Hubble used both its optical and infrared instruments to study the nebula.
Hubble has revolutionized almost every area of observational astronomy. It has offered a new view of the Universe and has surpassed all expectations for a remarkable 28 years. To celebrate Hubble’s legacy and the long international partnership that makes it possible, ESA and NASA each year celebrate the telescope’s birthday with a spectacular new image. This year’s anniversary image features the Lagoon Nebula.
The Lagoon Nebula is a colossal object 55 light-years wide and 20 light-years tall. It’s three times larger in the sky than the full Moon despite its tremendous distance from the Earth. It is even visible to the naked eye in clear, dark skies. Since the Lagoon Nebula is relatively huge on the night sky, Hubble is only able to capture a small fraction of the total nebula. This image is only about four light-years across, but it shows stunning details.
The inspiration for this nebula’s name may not be immediately obvious in this image. It becomes clearer only in a wider field of view, when the broad, lagoon-shaped dust lane that crosses the glowing gas of the nebula can be made out. This new image, however, depicts a scene at the very heart of the nebula.
Like many stellar nurseries, the nebula boasts many large, hot stars. Their ultraviolet radiation ionizes the surrounding gas, causing it to shine brightly and sculpting it into ghostly and other-worldly shapes. The bright star embedded in dark clouds at the center of the image is Herschel 36. Its radiation sculpts the surrounding cloud by blowing some of the gas away, creating dense and less dense regions.
Among the sculptures created by Herschel 36 are two interstellar twisters — eerie, rope-like structures that each measure half a light-year in length. These features are quite similar to their namesakes on Earth — they are thought to be wrapped into their funnel-like shapes by temperature differences between the hot surfaces and cold interiors of the clouds. At some point in the future, these clouds will collapse under their own weight and give birth to a new generation of stars.
Hubble observed the Lagoon Nebula not only in visible light but also at infrared wavelengths. While the observations in the optical allow astronomers to study the gas in full detail, the infrared light cuts through the obscuring patches of dust and gas, revealing the more intricate structures underneath and the young stars hiding within it. Only by combining optical and infrared data can astronomers paint a complete picture of the ongoing processes in the nebula.
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