After 30 years, Hubble is still revealing new mysteries of the universe

Operating far past its expected life span, the telescope captures data that answer some of space’s biggest questions—and make glorious images.

Photograph by NASA/ESA AND Z. LEVAY (STSCI/AURA)
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A colorized composite image captures the Veil Nebula. It’s a portion of the doughnut-shaped Cygnus Loop, the result of a supernova explosion several thousand years ago.
Photograph by NASA/ESA AND Z. LEVAY (STSCI/AURA)
This story appears in the May 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.
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How did early Hubble images compare with even high-quality images from ground-based telescopes? Part of the first image Hubble made (above right) is about 50 percent sharper than an image of the same area of space taken with a ground-based telescope (above left).

In 1990 NASA and the European Space Agency launched a telescope designed to peer deep into the universe. Above Earth’s atmosphere, the satellite would see without distortions from air, light, and pollution. Scientists said it would last, at best, for a decade.

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Known as the Horsehead Nebula, this celestial wonder was discovered in 1888 by Scottish astronomer Williamina Fleming. Her distinguished career in the United States included cataloging thousands of stars.
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Images that capture x-ray light are combined with images that capture infrared light to make this view of the heart of the Milky Way galaxy. The turbulent region is home to stars in all phases of evolution.
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Astronomers studied 10,000 stars in Hubble pictures to make this composite image and to learn about the evolution of the Milky Way galaxy. Light from our own galaxy is the most recently produced and most vibrant. Several maintenance missions kept Hubble in shape to capture data that the Space Telescope Science Institute then deciphered and colorized to create stunning celestial images.

Thirty years later, Hubble continues to fascinate. Its famous images have helped astronomers answer some of space’s biggest questions, from How old is the universe? (13.8 billion years old) to Do black holes actually exist? (yes, with frightening ferocity). In 1995 astronomer Bob Williams had a zany idea: What if NASA pointed Hubble at a seeming dark spot in the sky? That yielded the magical discovery that even where the human eye sees nothing, thousands of galaxies exist.

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NASA considers Hubble, which orbits 340 miles above Earth, to be one of its best investments.

“One of Hubble’s lasting achievements will be how it showed the public the wonders of the universe,” says Kenneth Sembach, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, which oversees Hubble’s science program.

Next year NASA plans to launch the more sensitive James Webb Space Telescope—but Hubble’s not done yet. Together, the two will craft an even more complex portrait of the universe and look for answers to a question that never gets old: What else is out there?