The new and improved Hubble Space Telescope has spotted a dragon-shaped cosmic mirage and other celestial wonders, showing it is working better than ever following its latest repairs in May.
Seven NASA astronauts visited Hubble in May on a space shuttle mission to install a new camera and spectrograph, repair two older instruments, and install new batteries as well as new gyroscopes needed to keep the orbiting observatory properly oriented in space.
On Wednesday, scientists released some spectacular new images that demonstrate Hubble is performing well following the upgrades. See a gallery of the new Hubble images
One of the pictures shows a galaxy stretched into a dragon shape in a cosmic illusion. It is a normal spiral galaxy, but its light rays get bent on their way to Earth due to the gravity of an intervening galaxy cluster in a phenomenon called gravitational lensing.
The galaxy's elongated appearance revealed it to be an example of gravitational lensing more than two decades ago. But the new Hubble image shows the galaxy in "incredible detail", exceeding that of any previous image, says David Leckrone, senior project scientist for Hubble at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
"This is really fascinating to me – I've never seen anything quite like this before," he said at a news conference on Wednesday in Washington, DC.
The image was taken using Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys, which was repaired during the servicing mission in May following a breakdown in 2007.
Also released today were new Hubble images showing a colourful star cluster, a star-forming nebula, and a group of interacting galaxies. "To see these first images is incredibly exciting for me and the whole Hubble team," said astronaut Scott Altman, commander of the May servicing mission.
The repairs done in May were designed to give Hubble at least 5 more years of life, but Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator for science says he is betting it will last much longer. If all goes according to NASA's plan, Hubble will be joined in 2014 by the infrared James Webb Space Telescope. "Hopefully both of them will operate for many years beyond 2014," Weiler says.
In addition to repairing the Advanced Camera for Surveys, the servicing mission repaired an instrument for measuring light spectra called the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) and installed two new instruments: the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) and the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3).
Future observations planned for Hubble include:
• Studying the atmospheres of alien planets that pass in front of their parent stars as seen from Earth to reveal the planets' chemical composition and other properties;
• An extremely long look at a region of the sky to detect faint objects in the early universe. This could reveal infant galaxies seen as they were less than 500 million years after the big bang – improving on a previous 'ultra deep field' portrait that probed back to about 700 million years after the big bang;
• A survey for objects in the Kuiper Belt, a ring of icy bodies beyond Neptune, where Pluto resides
Scientists are "giddy" to have the capabilities of the new and improved Hubble at their disposal, says Heidi Hammel of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado. "Whether it's our local neighbourhood of planets, nearby stars and their attendant planets, clusters of galaxies out to the edge of the universe – every field has questions that are awaiting the power of Hubble," she says.