Twenty years ago, on April 24, 1990, the Discovery space shuttle carried with it a large telescope into space. The Hubble Space Telescope would be deployed for NASA in an effort to see and photograph space — and the myriad objects that populate it — unencumbered by the obscuring effects of the Earth’s atmosphere. No longer would images of space be compromised by weather. And the Hubble Space Telescope did not disappoint. Photos taken of those images, like the photo released on the telescope’s 20th anniversary, would be spectacular.
And by opening up the eyes of the world to the beauty and magnificence of the universe, NASA created its greatest PR tool. At the same time, it opened up new avenues in fields of study ranging from astronomy to cosmology. The telescope has helped in assessing the age of the universe, helping to understand how planets, formed, and was the first to detect organic matter outside our solar system.
After going through years of budget cuts and talk of phasing out NASA, discoveries and advances kept the Space Agency moving forward, but it was the photos showing the wonder of space that seemed to re-energize, perhaps reintroduce, the idea of space exploration, an idea whose practice had been basically at a standstill since the advent of the shuttle program. And every time NASA released more photos from the Hubble Space Telescope, generations of individuals raised in the era of Star Trek and Star Wars saw that there was indeed something out there that was worth taking a look at and perhaps exploring.
Beautiful photos of the planets of our solar system, of distant constellations and galaxies, of strange and provocative nebula and star formations captured the imaginations of millions. Of them all, perhaps the “Pillars of Creation” photo released in 1995 was the most amazing. The latest release, “Pillars and Jets,” shows massive columns of hydrogen gas and dust that span an incredible three light years in the Carina Nebula, an area our galaxy where there is a high concentration of star births. The gaseous cloud is being pushed apart by nascent stars from within and lit through-and-through by the light of surrounding stars.
NASA celebrates the 20th year of the Hubble Space Telescope’s operation by launching several programs as well. Not only have they released a book of the Hubble’s greatest photographs and premiered the IMAX film “Hubble 3D,” but they have also launched a cooperative venture called Galaxy Zoo where amateur astronomers will be able to help professionals sort through the vast numbers of photographed galaxies and help catalog them. A website has also been designed for educators and students in mind: “Celebrating Hubble’s 20th Anniversary.” The site contains the history of the Hubble Space Telescope, news, a “hall of fame” photo gallery, and other educational tools.