The Hubble Space Telescope turns 30 today, as it was launched aboard the space shuttle Discovery on April 24, 1990. Ever since it captured its first image a few weeks later, the telescope has entranced the public with its views of objects near and far.
In honor of the telescope’s birthday, the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA have released a commemorative 30th-anniversary image, showing our beautiful galactic neighbor, the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), which orbits around the Milky Way at a distance of approximately 163,000 light-years from Earth. The image has been nicknamed the “Cosmic Reef” as it recalls underwater corals.
This region is home to two nebulae which are part of an active star-forming region. The stars being born here are bright and massive, weighing in at at least ten times the mass of our sun, but because they shine so brightly they will quickly burn through their fuel and live just a few million years, unlike our sun which has a lifetime of around 10 billion years.
Images like this one allow astronomers to learn about the lifecycles of stars as they are born and interact with the dust and gas around them. Other Hubble images have helped us understand how stars are born, the importance of cosmic dust in star formation, and how those stars form different types of galaxy. Not to mention Hubble’s contributions to understanding the formation of black holes, why there are supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies, and upending our assumptions about how fast the universe is expanding.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of Hubble, not only as a tool of scientific discovery but also as an inspiration for people from all over the world who get to see the wonders of the universe that would otherwise be hidden from them.
“The Hubble Space Telescope is more than remarkable,” NASA astronaut and self-proclaimed “Hubble hugger” John Grunsfeld, who performed several servicing missions on the telescope between 1999 and 2009, said in a 2008 interview.
“It has produced all of the science that we expected it would: The discovery that black holes really do exist and occupy the center of nearly every galaxy, massive black holes, millions of times the mass of our sun. It has measured the age of the universe, 13.7 plus or minus .1 billion years old, a very accurate number. It has answered just so many of those fundamental questions that people have been asking about the cosmos since people were able to ask questions.”