The U.S. space agency NASA on Wednesday unveiled dramatic new photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope four months after astronauts upgraded the almost 20-year-old earth-orbiting astronomy platform.
In May, Space Shuttle astronauts replaced two of Hubble's science instruments and performed other repairs, and this week scientists celebrated the results with the astronauts who made the trip, including Megan McArthur.
"I don't know how many different ways you can say 'wow' or 'amazing' or 'cool,'" she told reporters. "I think the other thing that we all feel was relief and satisfaction that all the instruments are working even better than the folks who designed them expected them to do, so it's a good feeling."
For most non-scientists, Hubble's most dramatic products are the photographs, and astronomer Bob O'Connell says the latest pictures demonstrate the value of the new Wide Field camera.
"Now, based on these pictures and the other data we've gathered so far, we're fully confident the camera's working as it was intended to work, and we're eagerly looking forward to see what other astronomers are going to do with it over the next five years."
O'Connell chairs the science oversight committee for the camera, one of several instruments on the orbiting telescope.
Hubble's other new instrument analyzes the light coming from distant objects to determine the chemical elements and compounds in those objects. The main scientist on the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, James Green, says it's an important tool for understanding the universe.
"The new instrument is ten times more sensitive, which means we can look at ten times as many targets or, alternatively, a target that's one-tenth as bright and get that science."
One of the most important advantages of a telescope in space is that it is above the distorting effects of the earth's atmosphere. But since Hubble went into orbit in 1990, bigger and more advanced telescopes have been built on Earth. Some even have adaptive optics that compensate for the atmospheric distortion.
But as Earth-based telescopes have improved, so has Hubble, with repeated upgrades. And astronomer Heidi Hammel of the Space Telescope Science Institute says there's more.
"The other thing that Hubble can do that can never, ever be done from the ground is imaging in the ultraviolet [light spectrum] because our Earth's atmosphere absorbs the photons before they get to the surface of the Earth. So you could make a football field-size telescope and you'll never collect the photos, because they aren't there."
When the Hubble telescope was first launched, it went into orbit with a defective mirror, which was later fixed by shuttle astronauts. The repair mission this past May — the fourth and probably the final fix for Hubble — was challenging and, to judge from the new photos, successful. Astronauts who worked on the multi-billion dollar space telescope joked they were just relieved to know they didn't break it.
For access to more images and information, visit the Hubble Web site