When we look up at the stars, it is humble to realize that we can only glimpse what's up there, beyond what's visible to the naked eye, wondrous galaxies we never knew that they exist … to the Hubble Space Telescope. Since its launch, Hubble has sent breathtaking images of the vast sky for 28 years. As we told you in October, astronauts have been constantly modernizing Hubble over the years, making his discoveries increasingly dramatic. Tonight, we'll take you back to Hubble and billions of light years beyond to see some of his latest, most spectacular revelations.
NASA celebrates Hubble's birthday every year by giving us a gift – a new, breathtaking view of our universe. The latest birthday card: this elegant vortex of galaxies dancing deep in space. Last year – this bubble of star ghosts hovering between the stars like a translucent cosmic jellyfish. Hubble has shown us luminous rose-shaped galaxies spanning space; and dramatic towering clouds of gas teeming with the stuff of creation. Stars are born here. Year after year, Hubble paints an ever-expanding picture of our universe in the infinite black canvas – an awesome light show that we can admire … and for scientists to study.
AMBER STRAUGHN: I think Hubble was the most transformative scientific instrument we've ever built.
"Most transformative," says NASA astrophysicist Amber Straughn, because Hubble is improving our understanding of the universe. She showed us what Hubble discovered after spending days looking into something that looked like an empty black spot – a deep, dark nothingness – in space.
AMBER STRAUGHN: The original Hubble depth field is directly above the Big Dipper. It is part of the sky that most people are familiar with. It is an empty piece of heaven.
"I believe Hubble was the most transformative scientific instrument we've ever built."
BILL WHITAKER: So nothing in here, just darkness.
AMBER STRAUGHN: Nothing at all. Perfect darkness. And then, when we look at it with Hubble, we see thousands of galaxies.
BILL WHITAKER: Not just stars.
AMBER STRAUGHN: Right.
BILL WHITAKER: Galaxies.
AMBER STRAUGHN: Galaxies outside our own. Something we never imagined.
BILL WHITAKER: Does Hubble only listen to that dark spot until the light penetrates and shows itself?
AMBER STRAUGHN: That's what happens. It sometimes takes many, many, many days to just stare at one part of the sky and allow the photons to collect on your detector.
BILL WHITAKER: And that's what's revealed.
AMBER STRAUGHN: And that's what's revealed.
But Hubble was warming up. That was 23 years ago. Since then Hubble has looked deeper and longer into space with improved equipment.
AMBER STRAUGHN: There are 10,000 galaxies in this particular image. Each individual point of light is therefore an individual galaxy, its own small island universe. And that is a true visualization of the distances of these galaxies. Something like
BILL WHITAKER: Kind of 3D
AMBER STRAUGHN: -3D as we fly. So we can take these pictures in 3D because we know how far away the galaxies are. What Hubble essentially gave us is the size of the universe. Hubble has taught us that the universe is filled with hundreds of billions of other galaxies.
And now the latest analysis of Hubble's data shows that there could be more than two trillion galaxies – ten times more than previously thought. Typical galaxies, like our Milky Way, have 100 billion stars. This means that the total number of stars – or suns outside – is 2, followed by 23 zeros. That's called 200 sextillion. To get an idea of how many stars there are, we went to Adam Riess, who received a Nobel Prize for his work on Hubble.
ADAM RIESS: These are more stars in the visible universe than grains of sand on the beach.
BILL WHITAKER: – on Earth
ADAM RIESS: On all the beaches of the earth
BILL WHITAKER: And Hubble showed us that?
ADAM RIESS: It has. In many cases we could see how some of the most distant galaxies look like and how many stars were in them. And we could complete everything.
BILL WHITAKER: Hubble was called a time machine – that it looks back in time. What was the most amazing part of it for you?
ADAM RIESS: I'm studying explosions of stars called supernovae. It's like a firework. It is only visible for a short time, in this case for a few weeks. And this light has been coming to us for 10 billion years. It began its journey when the earth was not there yet. And over that 10 billion years, our planet has formed. Life has evolved. We built the Hubble Space Telescope. We opened the opening door. And in the last billionth of one percent of the trip that made the light, we opened the door just in time to catch it.
Hubble would have caught almost nothing. The first images it sent back were fuzzy because of a microscopic error in the mirror. The Space Agency launched a daring mission to fix it.
Astronauts have made five trips to Hubble to repair and upgrade their equipment. John Grunsfeld, known as the Hubble Mechanic, flew three of these missions to a telescope the size of a school bus circling 300 miles above the Earth.
JOHN GRUNSFELD: Pretty much anything we can easily change and fix
BILL WHITAKER: The way the telescope works, all of that has changed.
JOHN GRUNSFELD: Yes. It's like a new telescope.
BILL WHITAKER: On your last mission, you come out of the airlock and you have that big smile on your face.
JOHN GRUNSFELD: I thought, you know, I can not imagine I'd rather be out of space shuttle in my spacesuit next to the Hubble Space Telescope. I was just so happy.
Hubble has changed what we know about the universe – its structure, its evolution, its age – 13.8 billion years. Hubble showed us the wonder and majesty of the stars that were born.
AMBER STRAUGHN: This is a region of gas and dust that stirs up new baby stars. And now, with Hubble, we've learned not just stars but baby planet systems as well.
BILL WHITAKER: Most of these stars have planets around them?
AMBER STRAUGHN: Most stars actually have planets. When I was a kid, we only knew the planets in our solar system. And now we know that the planets are absolutely everywhere.
Astronomer Heidi Hammel specializes in Hubble's work in our solar system. With the telescope she saw huge fragments of a comet strike Jupiter and produce huge impacts.
HEIDI HAMMEL: When I heard that a comet would hit Jupiter, my reaction was, "Eh, well, Jupiter is huge." Comets When I saw the first impact point and it was huge and dark, I was stunned: Here the comet hit the planet at such a high speed that it triggered an explosion that is equivalent to many millions of atomic bombs.
HEIDI HAMMEL: Earth is as big as this ring Earth would have happened, then –
BILL WHITAKER: We're gone
HEIDI HAMMEL: Yeah, we call that a biosphere-changing event, which basically means we're gone.
Hubble revolves high, outside the earth 's atmosphere so that it can see a wide range of light blocking our atmosphere. www.mjfriendship.de/de/index.php?op…27&Itemid=47 I can see dazzling depictions like this glowing halo on Jupiter seh en 9006] HEIDI HAMMEL: Up in the northern hemisphere you can see the glowing Aurors. Aurora occurs when the planet's magnetic field has charged particles that interact with the upper atmosphere. What you see there are actually charged particles from the sun. They are caught by the strong magnetic field of Jupiter. And then it is reflected in that shimmer that you see in the Aurora Oval.
BILL WHITAKER: And you could not see that with an Earth Telescope?
HEIDI HAMMEL: You could never see these polar lights because of our atmosphere has an ozone layer that absorbs the ultraviolet light.
Hubble also found a similar blue tint at the bottom of Saturn. The most iconic image of the telescope is this: the pillars of creation, a stellar breeding ground. Amber Straughn showed us what a difference Hubble's enhanced infrared camera did three years ago.
AMBER STRAUGHN: Stars are born in these clouds of dust. And that will give you an indication of why infrared is so important, because in the infrared light, what you see, the stars are shining through inside.
BILL WHITAKER: You see the stars in it. How big is this cloud space?
AMBER STRAUGHN: From top to bottom, these pillars are about ten light-years long, which is about 60 trillion miles.
BILL WHITAKER: 60 trillion miles
AMBER STRAUGHN: Yes. Room is big.
"Big" and wondrous with constant heavenly regeneration. Straughn calls this "the all-picture" because you can see old stars explode – and form new stars.
AMBER STRAUGHN: Every time you see these dark, cloudy regions, you can imagine stars being born there.
BILL WHITAKER: Where are the dying stars?
AMBER STRAUGHN: And the dying stars, we think that day could literally explode, or it could be in a thousand years. But in the near future with astronomers –
BILL WHITAKER: In cosmic time, every day.
AMBER STRAUGHN: Right. As big stars die, they explode and send their content into the surrounding universe. And these are the things that will sow future stars and future planets, and ultimately help to sow life. The iron in your blood and the calcium in your bones were literally forged in a star that ended his life like this.
BILL WHITAKER: So we're all stardust.
AMBER STRAUGHN: We are literally stardust. We are made of the stars. One of the things that I find in this picture is that it shows how colorful the universe is.
BILL WHITAKER: It looks like contemporary art.
AMBER STRAUGHN: This is a very closely related group of stars. And what you see here are about 100,000 stars. This was one of the first images that Hubble's new camera, which was installed in 2009, was one of the first images.
Blue stars are the youngest and hottest. White and yellow stars, like our sun, are in the middle of life; while red stars are the oldest and coolest. John Grunsfeld has a cool claim to fame. He is the last person to touch Hubble. He gave him a farewell sign.
BILL WHITAKER: Hubble was supposed to live for 15 years. It's now 27. How long can Hubble still go?
JOHN GRUNSFELD: I am reasonably confident that it will take another three to five years.
That means Hubble will work together for at least a while, the much larger James Webb telescope, which is scheduled to launch in 2021. Webb should be able to detect light from the earliest galaxies. The farthest Hubble can see this red spot, a galaxy from 400 million years after the Big Bang. Webb should bring us much closer to the beginning of time.
JOHN GRUNSFELD: The James Webb Space Telescope was specially designed to see the first stars and galaxies that have arisen in the universe. So we'll see the snapshot when the stars started. When galaxies have started. The very first moments of the universe. And my bet? There will be some big surprises.
Produced by Robert G. Anderson, Aaron Weisz and William Harwood.