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Hubble Celebrates 32nd Birthday With Glorious Gaggle of Galaxies

"Wow look at that!"

hcg40hubble
Hubble spotted this wild grouping of five galaxies known as Hickson Compact Group 40.
Science: NASA, ESA, STScI/Image Processing: Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

Candles, schmandles. The Hubble Space Telescope is preparing to mark its 32nd birthday in orbit with galaxies -- five of them snuggling up together in one stunning image.

Hubble is a joint project of NASA and the European Space Agency. Every April, the Hubble team releases a knockout image to mark its launch and release. This year's celebrity guest is called the Hickson Compact Group 40 (HCG 40). You can spot three spiral galaxies, one elliptical galaxy and one that's shaped a bit like a lens (lenticular). 

HCG 40 is notable for how cozy its member galaxies are with one another. 

"Caught in a leisurely gravitational dance, the whole group is so crowded that it could fit within a region of space that is less than twice the diameter of our Milky Way's stellar disk," NASA said in a statement Tuesday.   

The galaxies are off in their own little world in the direction of the Hydra constellation. 

"I remember seeing this on a sky survey and saying, 'Wow look at that!'" said astrophysicist Paul Hickson of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. Hubble's view brings them into focus. 

The galaxies seem to be respecting one another's space, but NASA said they'll collide and merge in about 1 billion years into a giant elliptical galaxy. While Hubble has been remarkably long lived, it won't be around to witness that event.

The space shuttle Discovery launched on April 24, 1990, with Hubble in tow and then released the telescope into space on April 25. It's been a busy few decades, with NASA counting 1.5 million Hubble observations of around 50,000 celestial targets. It has eyed galaxies, comets, asteroids, nebulae, planets and stars. 

The resilient telescope has been through a lot of drama in its life. It's been serviced in space by shuttle crews and survived a bevy of technical glitches. The aging observatory has persevered, though, and NASA expects it to stay in business even as the next-gen James Webb Space Telescope gets to work.