A Rose of Galaxies? NASA Rings In Hubble’s 21st Birthday

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If space-based telescopes could tipple, they probably wouldn’t need to–not with images like the one above on tap. NASA’s celebrating the Hubble Space Telescope’s 21st birthday (hey, it’s legal!) with an image that almost resembles starry petals on some vast and distant heavenly rose.

You’re in fact staring at a shot of two galaxies in an interstellar tete-a-tete, in which one (dubbed UGC 1810) is being persuaded by another (dubbed UGC 1813) to “blossom.” The two galaxies exert gravitational forces on each other that warp their shapes, culminating in the rose-like appearance of UGC 1810. There’s even a slender “tidal bridge” of matter slung between both galaxies–separated by “tens of thousands” of light years–like an intergalactic zip line.

Call the whole thing “Arp 273,” because NASA does, and it’s located in the constellation Andromeda, about 300 million light-years distant from us.

As for the Hubble itself, my first memories when it launched back in April 1990 are probably the same as yours: it couldn’t “see” clearly due to a flawed mirror. The servicing mission that eventually fixed it didn’t occur until December 1993, incidentally the most complex mission ever undertaken at that point, and one in which astronauts were trained in the use of over 100 instruments to repair and fine tune things.

“Hubble is America’s gift to the world,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland in a NASA statement. “Its jaw-dropping images have rewritten the textbooks and inspired generations of schoolchildren to study math and science. It has been documenting the history of our universe for 21 years. Thanks to the daring of our brave astronauts, a successful servicing mission in 2009 gave Hubble new life. I look forward to Hubble’s amazing images and inspiring discoveries for years to come.”

That 2009 mission, carried out by the crew of Space Shuttle Atlantis, involved five spacewalks and two new pieces of equipment: a replacement Wide Field Camera and a “Cosmic Origins Spectrograph.” The updates and repairs make Hubble viable until at least 2014.

What’s after Hubble? Something called the James Webb Space Telescope, an infrared space observatory that looks like, well, see for yourself… It’s pretty cool-sounding, and its “ongoing mission” includes scanning for light from the very first stars, understanding galaxy formation and evolution, and studying the origins of life in terms of planetary systems. Look for it to launch as NASA sunsets the Hubble, sometime in 2014.