The Hubble Space Telescope got back to business this summer after an intensive repair and upgrade mission in May by a crew aboard the space shuttle. This week, an exultant NASA praised the work done by the astronauts--"Bottom line, these professionals left Hubble as a new state-of-the-art telescope," said Ed Weiler, the agency's associate administrator for space science--and released a series of photos that offer fresh and spectacular glimpses of the interstellar realm.
This image, taken by the new Wide Field Camera 3, shows the Butterfly Nebula (or Bug Nebula, cataloged as NGC 6302), at the center of which is a dying star that once had five times the mass of Earth's sun. The wings of this butterfly are actually gas heated to 36,000 degrees Fahrenheit and traveling faster than 600,000 miles per hour, NASA says. The nebula is some 3,800 light-years away in the constellation Scorpius, within the Milky Way galaxy. The outer edges of the butterfly wings arise from light emitted by nitrogen, while the white areas show light emitted by sulfur.
Astronomers, too, were giddy about Hubble's makeover. "We couldn't be more thrilled with the quality of the images from the new Wide Field Camera 3 and repaired Advanced Camera for Surveys, and the spectra from the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph and the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph," Keith Noll, a team leader at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, said in NASA's press release.
This view of the barred spiral galaxy NGC 6217, located 6 million light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major, was the first post-repair image of a celestial object taken with Advanced Camera for Surveys.
The Wide Field Camera 3 captured this still life of Stephan's Quintet, a group of five galaxies. (It's also known as Hickson Compact Group 92.) At the top right is NGC 7319, a barred spiral, and those blue and red specks are clusters of thousands of stars.
At the center are two galaxies that appear from this perspective almost as one, where there's "a frenzy of star birth" going on. (For the record, they're NGC 7318A and NGC 7318B.) At bottom left is NGC 7317, which NASA describes as "a normal-looking elliptical galaxy."
At upper left is the dwarf galaxy NGC 7320, where the blue and pink dots represent bursts of star formation. It's actually much closer to Earth (40 million light-years away) than the other four galaxies here (290 million light-years away, in the constellation Pegasus).
A "huge pillar of star birth" taking place in the Carina Nebula is seen here in two images from the Wide Field Camera 3, the top one taken in visible light and the bottom one in infrared. In the infrared image, only a faint outline of the cloudlike pillar remains, allowing astronomers to see fledgling stars and other details more clearly.
At the center of each image is an infant star that is shooting out a jet of cosmic material to the left and to the right. The jets are thought to be moving at speeds of up to 850,000 miles an hour.
Can you count all the stars here? NASA says there are 100,000, all squeezed (relatively speaking) into a small portion of the Omega Centauri star cluster. The yellow-white dots are adult stars powered by hydrogen fusion, the orange ones are late-life stars, and the red giants, which are shedding their gaseous envelopes, are older still.
The brilliant blue dots are stars that have ejected most of their mass and spent much of their hydrogen, and "are desperately trying to extend their lives by fusing helium in their cores," NASA says. "At this stage, they emit much of their light at ultraviolet wavelengths." The faint blue dots are white dwarfs--stars that have run out of helium and are now just burnt-out and have ever cooler cores.
Omega Centauri is among the approximately 200 globular clusters that orbit the Milky Way, and it's one of the most massive, host to nearly 10 million stars. It lies 16,000 light-years away from us.