Sunday is the 21st anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space telescope. To commemorate the day NASA has released “the Rose Galaxies” picture, which you see above.
Hubble spent nearly a decade in storage before it was launched. It was scheduled for a launch shortly after the mission that led to the destruction of the Challenger Shuttle. When the whole fleet was grounded during the investigation a whole bunch of higher priority missions where bumped as well. Finally in the early spring of 1990 it was launched and began to change our way of looking at the Solar System, the Milky Way galaxy and the Universe itself.
I am proud to own a actual photo from Hubble of a galaxy. It is an uncorrected photo and as such it is a little blurry in some of the details, yet it is one of my proudest possessions because it is what you would have seen if you were able to look through the lenses of the Hubble with your naked eye.
We now have a whole generation of new space telescopes that are helping us learn about the Universe in greater and greater depth, but Hubble will always be the first. But it was almost a flop. The wait in storage had (or some say a mistake in fabrication) distorted the mirrors of part of the observatory and had to be fixed by a ground breaking Space Shuttle mission in 1993.
I remember watching that mission on television. My friends, who really didn’t understand how hard this was and why it took so much time to do everything thought it was boring as hell, but I was captivated. Okay, my nerd is about to show (my wife says my nerd is so big it is a naked eye object from orbit, but that is for another column) but I still get chills from remembering part of the mission.
At one point in one of the space walks the astronaut working on Hubble dropped a bolt. It spun out of his hands and out of the light into deep shadow. On Earth this would not be a big deal, but in orbit that bolt would continue to orbit somewhere near Hubble and potentially impact the space telescope, possibly multiple times. It was a big fat hairy deal and you could hear the tension in the Mission Control voices and the astronaut. They had him look but he did not see it anywhere.
He then asked for permission to have the boom he was standing on moved into the shadow of the Hubble. He had a hunch where it went and thought he could get it. After a little back and forth they decided to go for it. Five minutes later, with almost nothing to see on the screen but Hubble itself, the words “Got it!” crackled across the comm. channel.
I know, I know it does not seem exciting but it was a maneuver not trained for, between the boom operator and an astronaut who had been working in one of the most hostile and difficult environments known to man for hours. They did it on the fly, with just the skill they had developed for other tasks, because it had to be done. It is small acts like that which are what heroes are built of. My heart was in my throat and when I heard that "Got it!" I literally jumped in the air to cheer.
As for the picture it is of two galaxies that NASA thinks “interacted” meaning that the smaller one (UGC 1813) lower in the picture probably passed through the larger one (UGC 1810). The reason they think this is way that the larger galaxy has a distorted arm and the smaller one has a large number of newish stars at its core.
The meeting of two massive clusters of stars like that would have been incredibly violent. Massive amounts of radiation sweeping the length of both galaxies as super nova after super nova exploded from the proximity of the stars from another galaxy.
Still, some hundreds of millions of years after they separated our, first space telescope was able to capture this beautiful and peaceful picture. NASA really picked a great way to honor the old Hubble, don’t you think?