Hubble, New and Improved

NASA's baby gets a checkup and a bunch of new toys

For a gallery of Hubble's most incredible images, click "View Photos" at left

The terrific thing about NASA chief Michael Griffin's decision to launch a Hubble servicing mission–the telescope's fifth since 1990–isn't simply that the spacecraft will be able to limp along for another four years. After astronauts visit Hubble on this latest mission (set to launch no earlier than May 2008), the telescope will be more powerful than it has ever been, thanks to some incredible new instruments being tested now.

The first is a replacement for Hubble's main camera, the 13-year-old Wide Field Planetary Camera 2. The new camera, cleverly named the Wide Field Camera 3, will do everything the old camera did, but better. It's like keeping all the lenses from your old film camera but upgrading to a professional-model digital SLR body.

I was lucky enough to be at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center yesterday right after the announcement was made, and I spoke with James Green, principal investigator for the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph project, the other major upgrade scheduled for the servicing mission. The COS had just been loaded for testing into a sort of three-story-tall, 50-foot-wide Thermos that's designed to replicate the vacuum and temperature extremes of space. It will pummel the COS for the next two months.

Above the din of the vacuum pumps, Green explained that the COS will be the first instrument that will allow scientists to track the 95 percent of normal matter in the universe that doesn't glow-the interstellar gas clouds wafting between stars and galaxies. It will look at distant quasars and trace how these clouds absorb the quasars' light. In this way, scientists can tell what elements and molecules the clouds are made of, and hence can map the hidden structure of the universe.

If all goes well, the servicing mission should keep the new, improved Hubble working until 2013, when its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is set to launch.

by Courtesy NASA/Hubblesite.org

Abel 1689 is one of the most massive galaxy clusters known. The gravity of its trillion stars, plus dark matter, acts like a two-million-light-year-wide "lens" in space. The gravitational lens bends and magnifies the light of galaxies far behind it.Courtesy NASA/Hubblesite.org

by Courtesy NASA/Hubblesite.org

Radiation from hot stars [top] illuminates and erodes this giant, gaseous pillar. Additional ultraviolet radiation causes the gas to glow, giving the pillar its red halo of light.Courtesy NASA/Hubblesite.org

by Courtesy NASA/Hubblesite.org

Ultraviolet radiation and high-speed material, unleashed by the hot, massive, blue star cluster [left of center], plow into clouds of gas and dust. The impact causes the gas and dust to glow and triggers star formation.Courtesy NASA/Hubblesite.org

by Courtesy NASA/Hubblesite.org

A billowing tower of gas and dust rises from the stellar nursery known as the Eagle Nebula. This small piece of the Eagle Nebula is 57 trillion miles long.Courtesy NASA/Hubblesite.org

by Courtesy NASA/Hubblesite.org

When a massive star exploded, spewing out its gaseous layers into a turbulent, star-forming region of the Large Magellanic Cloud, it left behind this chaotic cloud of gas and dust. The star that produced this supernova remnant was probably 50 times the mass of our sun.Courtesy NASA/Hubblesite.org

by Courtesy NASA/Hubblesite.org

An onion-skin-like structure of concentric dust shells surrounds a central, aging star. Twin beams of light radiate from the star and illuminate the usually invisible dust. Here, artificial colors show how light reflects off the particles and heads toward Earth.Courtesy NASA/Hubblesite.org

by Courtesy NASA/Hubblesite.org

In the Tarantula Nebula lies a bright cluster of brilliant, massive stars, Hodge 301. The cluster [lower right-hand corner] blasts material from supernovae into the surrounding nebula.Courtesy NASA/Hubblesite.org

by Courtesy NASA/Hubblesite.org

Intricate structures of concentric gas shells, jets of high-speed gas and shock-induced knots of gas make up this complicated planetary nebula. The Cat's Eye Nebula, which is about 1,000 years old, could have resulted from a double-star system.Courtesy NASA/Hubblesite.org

by Courtesy NASA/Hubblesite.org

The large Whirlpool Galaxy [left] is known for its sharply defined spiral arms. Their prominence could be the result of the Whirlpool's gravitational tug-of-war with its smaller companion galaxy [right].Courtesy NASA/Hubblesite.org

by Courtesy NASA/Hubblesite.org

Clouds of dust and gas in the Orion Nebula churn out stars in this tiny section of the huge Orion Nebula. The gas is illuminated and heated by ultraviolet light from four hot, massive stars.Courtesy NASA/Hubblesite.org

by Courtesy NASA/Hubblesite.org

This detailed picture of the Helix Nebula shows a fine web of filaments, like the spokes of a bicycle, embedded in the colorful red-and-blue gas ring around this dying star. The Helix Nebula is one of the nearest planetary nebulae to Earth, only 650 light-years away.Courtesy NASA/Hubblesite.org

by Courtesy NASA/Hubblesite.org

The Cat's Eye Nebula, one of the first planetary nebulae discovered, also has one of the most complex forms known to this kind of nebula. Eleven rings, or shells, of gas make up the Cat's Eye.Courtesy NASA/Hubblesite.org