Five grueling space walks in May (“Healing Hubble”,SN Online: 5/26/09) have transformed the aging — and ailing — Hubble Space Telescope into a brand new observatory.
Images and spectra released by NASA on September 9 confirm that two new instruments and two old, revived instruments are working properly. The portraits include a penetrating infrared view inside the dusty cocoon of a Milky Way starbirthing region, a butterfly-shaped nebula surrounding a dying star and a massive cluster of galaxies that acts like a gravitational lens, distorting the light of background galaxies. Spectra include an analysis of ultraviolet light from a distant quasar that illuminates the universe’s weblike architecture and an analysis of the chemical elements expelled by a temperamental star.
In addition to the portraits released on September 9, several astronomers have begun making early scientific observations with Hubble’s instruments. Images taken with Wide Field Camera 3 “are nothing short of spectacular,” says Hubble astronomer Rogier Windhorst of Arizona State University in Tempe. “For the first time, Hubble is reaching its full potential at the widest possible wavelength range, the highest possible sensitivity and the best achievable pixel resolution over the widest possible field-of-view.”
Another team, led by Garth Illingworth of the University of California, Santa Cruz, has also begun observations with Wide Field Camera 3. “The images we are looking at already are the deepest infrared images ever taken of the sky, and the program is not yet complete,” he says. Illingworth says he is certain that over the next few months infrared observation with Wide Field Camera 3 will unearth a plethora of extremely distant galaxies, from a time when the universe was only 700 million years old.
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In combination with Hubble’s revived Advanced Camera for Surveys, primarily a visible-light instrument, the new camera will find galaxies “far, far beyond anything that we have ever had before,” he says.