Babe Among the Stars

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Galaxy Babe's column banner, showing a full moon and some little folk looking up at the sky

Mortal as I am, I know that I am born for a day. But when I follow at my pleasure the serried multitude of the stars in their circular course, my feet no longer touch the earth - Ptolemy

Babe Among the Stars 24 Apr 08

The Hubble space telescope was launched on 24 April, 1990. It was named in honour of the astronomer Edwin Hubble (1889 - 1953). After overcoming initial teething problems the pictures that began to be relayed back to Earth provided humankind with their first crystal-clear images of deep-space objects. In Jan 2002 it was able to watch the light echo of a nova occur - a unique event. The star in question, V838 Monocerotis, underwent a dramatic transformation which the Hubble was able to capture in all its glory and deliver to an audience 20,000 light years distant. When you view the images of the stellar explosion from your ringside seat, it's hard to imagine the scale, or the awesome power involved.

After the Hubble had provided us with a 'deep field' iconic image of galaxies far, far away, it was difficult to imagine how that could be topped. The answer was the 'ultra' (HUDF), a 'gap' in the constellation  Fornax which revealed 10,000 galaxies in one core sample. If the photo had been taken from Earth, the size of the sky involved would have been around a tenth of the size of the full moon. Light from some of the galaxies was several billion years old; they existed when the Universe was a mere 800 million years old and remain the most distant objects known.

Some of the images are staggeringly beautiful, even those who don't understand the workings of the Universe can still be overawed by the fabulous artwork on display. The online 'library' at the NASA website HubbleSite gives you options to search for galaxies, stars, nebulas, the unusual and the exotic. Even the wonders of our own intergalactic backyard, the planets and their moons of our Solar System, are more than adequately represented. The Hubble Heritage Project website has been set up to offer not just an archive but also a 'cream of the crop' selection of images and plenty of background information.

The Hubble has had four major servicings over the course of its tenure in space, each time has involved shuttles taking astronauts to do the repair work. The space observatory is due for one final servicing mission, planned for August 2008, which will extend its operational life by five years.

Diary Dates 24 Apr-7 May

  • 27 Apr: Jupiter 3° north of the Moon.
  • 28 Apr: Mars 5° south of Pollux (beta Geminorum) - this will be an excellent pairing as they'll appear the same colour, but only Pollux will twinkle. You won't need to get the binos out; provided it's a clear night this alignment will be easily spottable.
  • 29 Apr: This one is for the telescope owners: see if you can spot Neptune 0.3° south of the Moon.
  • 01 May: Test your eyesight, can you spot Uranus, 3° south of the Moon?
  • 04 May: Aquarids meteor shower maxim.
  • 05 May: New Moon.
  • 06 May: Mercury 3° south of the Moon.

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