stream of purple and orange light in black cosmos.

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.

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.

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.

The Crab Nebula surrounds a superdense neutron star.
The Crab Nebula surrounds a superdense neutron star.
Photograph by NASA/ESA (M. WEISSKOPF, NASA MARSHALL SPACE FLIGHT CENTER)

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.

“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?

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