Hubble Space Telescope celebrates 30 years in space

The Hubble Space Telescope transformed the way we see the universe and our place in it, and on Friday, it celebrated 30 years in space.

To mark the anniversary, NASA released a stunning image of two regions where stars are being born, the giant red nebula, NGC 2014, and its smaller blue neighbour, NGC 2020, in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a neighbouring galaxy to our own Milky Way. 

WATCH | NASA releases video on 30th anniversary of Hubble Space Telescope:

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Hubble — named after astronomer Edwin Hubble who confirmed our universe was expanding, among other findings — was launched into space aboard the space shuttle Discovery on April 24, 1990. 

But when Hubble opened its eye and took its first picture, astronomers were horrified to see a blurry and useless image. Further investigation discovered that the telescope’s main mirror had a tiny — about 1/50th the width of a human hair — flaw. 

It would take three more years until another mission could be launched to equip Hubble with a set of “glasses,” the Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement that was about the size of a telephone booth.

The result was spectacular.

This comparison image of the core of the galaxy M100 shows the dramatic improvement in the Hubble Space Telescope’s view of the universe after the first servicing mission in December 1993. The original view, taken a few days before the servicing mission, is on the left. ( NASA)


Since then, Hubble has allowed us to peer into the farthest reaches of our 13.8-billion-year-old universe, looking back in time to when it was just 400 million years old, a mere infant in astronomical terms.

While the telescope was launched in 1990, the idea of an orbiting telescope was first conceived in 1946 by Lyman Spitzer. However, it was first seriously considered in 1960, specifically by Nancy Grace Roman, considered the “Mother of Hubble.”

Hubble Space Telescope (NASA)

Why have a telescope in space? Earth’s atmosphere creates turbulence. Placing a telescope above the atmosphere increases the sharpness of images.

And Hubble has had multiple servicing missions upgrading its many cameras and instruments, further sharpening its images.

A Hubble telescope photograph of the iconic Eagle Nebula’s ‘Pillars of Creation’ is seen in this NASA image released Jan. 6, 2015. By comparing an original 1995 photo and a 2014 one, astronomers noticed a lengthening of a narrow jet-like feature that may have been ejected from a newly forming star. (Hubble Heritage Team/NASA/ESA/Reuters)

But it’s not all about beautiful images. Hubble has allowed astronomers to measure the acceleration of our universe; it’s provided evidence of dark matter; it has observed atmospheres around exoplanets; and it has monitored planets in our own solar system.

To date, the workhorse telescope has made 1.4 million observations with data used in more than 17,000 peer-reviewed papers. 

In 1994, Hubble turned its eye on Jupiter, for the first-ever view of a comet breaking apart and hitting a planet. It was this breakup of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 that alerted scientists to the potential danger Earth would be in should something similar happen here at home.

Hubble followed unexpected and dramatic changes in Jupiter’s atmosphere caused by collisions with comet fragments. The titanic blasts left Jupiter with a temporarily ‘bruised’ appearance, caused by black debris that was tossed high above the giant planet’s cloud tops. (Hubble Space Telescope comet team, NASA)

And one of its most famous pictures is the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, an image of almost 10,000 galaxies.

This image shows the Hubble Ultra Deep Field in 2012, an improved version of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image featuring additional observation time. The image reveals nearly 10,000 galaxies, with 800 exposures taken over the course of 400 Hubble orbits around Earth. The total amount of exposure time was 11.3 days, taken between Sept. 24, 2003, and Jan. 16, 2004. (NASA, ESA, R. Ellis (Caltech))

While Hubble is expected to last through the 2020s, a second-generation space telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, is scheduled to launch in 2021.

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