The Hubble Space Telescope has dazzled us for years with its unbelievable images of breathtaking cosmic phenomena. In honor of its 20th anniversary in orbit, we're sharing what we think are some of Hubble’s best photos. This composite color infrared image is a sweeping panorama of our galactic home – the Milky Way. Along with the Spitzer Space Telescope, Hubble captured the core of our galaxy, which hosts massive star clusters and gassy bodies. Astronomers have used this image, created from several shots collected between Feb. 22 and June 5, 2008, to track how stars react to changing environments.
Ultra Deep Field
Using its new Wide Field Camera 3, installed in May 2009, Hubble was able to photograph some of the universe’s oldest galaxies, several dating back to the “dark ages,” shortly after the Big Bang. Scientists who studied the images said the galaxies were “likely to be the most distant ever seen." The Ultra Dark Field is estimated to hold over 10,000 galaxies.
This spindly mass of blue and yellow is all that remains of a once gigantic supernova. Spanning 10 light-years across, the Crab Nebula has a neutron star as massive as the sun in its center that rotates about 30 times a second. Although this image was taken in 2008, astronomers have known about NGC 1952 for centuries. It was first recorded nearly 1,000 years ago by Chinese and Japanese observers in 1054.
What may look like an image of a delicate butterfly is actually a snapshot of incredible chaos in a dramatic death scene. The star at the center of the Butterfly Nebula, NGC 6302, is dying, causing huge outbursts of gas and dust to rush out at over 600,000 miles per hour, shown here in what looks like wings. It’s estimated that the star’s surface temperature is 250,000 degrees Celsius (450,032 degrees Fahrenheit). Hubble captured this new, detailed image in 2009.
Cat's Eye Nebula
One of the first planetary nebulae discovered, the Cat’s Eye Nebula, has one of the most complex nebula forms known to date. Although classified as a planetary nebula, the Cat’s Eye Nebula is actually a binary star system. This 2002 infrared image shows a dying star throwing off 11 gaseous rings, giving it an eerie glow.
Weird, swollen shapes that look like a sea monster make up the Cone Nebula, named for its obvious conical shape. This Hubble image, captured in 2002, shows only the top 2.4 light-years of the nebula, a height that equals 23 million round trips to the moon. As radiation from hot, young stars eat away at the nebula, the edges of the dark cloud release more hydrogen gas, building up the pillar forms. It’s possible that over time, the densest parts of the nebula could house planets and stars.
Hubble took this photo of towering evaporating gaseous globules (EGGs) found inside the Eagle Nebula in 1995. These giant pillars of hydrogen gas and dust are light years in height and are so dense that they form a gravitational pull strong enough to snatch up stars.
In the most detailed image ever shot of the misty Orion Nebula, Hubble captured a rare opportunity for astronomers to study star evolution. M42 is a large star-forming region near Earth, and the nebula’s several active stars have blown away gas and dust clouds that would otherwise block the view of the nebula, astronomers say. Shot in 2009, this image allows astronomers to track ongoing stages of star birth, growth and death. It’s estimated about 3,000 stars are hiding within Orion’s mist.
Black Eye Galaxy
What looks like a puffy black eye, the spiral galaxy M64, also known as the “Black Eye” or “Evil Eye” galaxy, earned its name from the swirling black dust clouds surrounding its center full of stars. Observations have determined that this galaxy is actually two counter-rotating systems, and likely formed when two separate galaxies collided, then merged. Even though M64 is 17 million light-years away from Earth, amateur astronomers have been able find it with their telescopes and it was first spotted in the 18th century. Hubble snapped this image in 2007.
Star V838 Monocerotis
This vibrant red supergiant lies near the edge of our Milky Way, about 20,000 light-years away from the sun. Its sudden outburst was first detected in January 2002, but Hubble captured this image in 2006. V838 Monocerotis’s shell, made up of dust, is about 14 light-years across. The starburst’s strange spherical shape continues to puzzle astronomers; where it fits into the timeline of star evolution and the cause of its outburst remain a mystery.
Astronomers believe that our sun could look very much like this one day. The Helix Nebula, NGC 7293, a planetary nebula, is shown here very close to the end of its life as a sun-like star. The haze is the star’s outer gases being expelled into space, leaving behind a white dwarf star. Spanning 2.5 light-years, Hubble took this image in 2009.
Storms on Jupiter
For more than 300 years, Jupiter’s gaseous atmosphere has hosted a gigantic storm known has the Giant Red Spot. Then in 2006, another red storm appeared and produced what appeared to be a few other whitish storm spots. When Hubble snapped this image in 2008, astronomers were surprised to discover that a third red storm spot had appeared. They speculate that this storm outbreak is due to a large climate shift on Jupiter. What's being sucked up into these storms or what causes them is still unknown.
Saturn's Double Aurora Show
No, you’re not seeing double. Hubble caught Saturn putting on a double aurora show in 2008. The Cassini missions later captured the phenomenon in greater detail, but this Hubble image still shows the ultraviolet aurora on the ringed planet’s poles quite clearly. The double aurora are caused by solar wind sweeping over and around the planet, then interacting with particles in Saturn’s atmosphere, exactly how aurora on Earth are formed.
This massive, dark, floating ring of dust particles casted out wide from its center is how the Sombrero Galaxy, M104, earned its name. Superimposed on this 2007 false-color infrared Hubble image, M104 casts off a brilliant glow from the black hole astronomers suspect lies in its center: A black hole a billion times the mass of our sun, that is.
What may look like a quiet meeting is actually a scene of galactic wreckage. The famous galaxy grouping, known as Stephen’s Quintet, shows three of the galaxies have distorted shapes -- proof of a close encounter at one time. The interactions of the three have sparked a star birth boom in the center pair of galaxies. Taken in 2009, the visible and infrared light image shows galaxy NGC 7319 at the top. Continuing clockwise, what looks like a galaxy with two cores is two separate bodies, NGC 7318A and NGC 7318B. Bottom left lies NGC 7313, a relatively normal looking elliptical galaxy, and finally, the dwarf galaxy NGC 7320 appears in the upper left.
This swirling mass of what looks like two galaxies holding hands is made up of a well-defined spiral galaxy, NGC 5195, and its smaller companion, NGC 5195. Although both look fuzzy, each galaxy is an extremely complex structure, captured by Hubble in 2009. The larger Whirlpool Galaxy is one of the brightest in the universe and the end of its arm is actually blocking the view of the smaller one as it’s reeling it in.
Star Cluster NGC 290
These sparkling gems are actually just a small snippet of the stellar brilliance within the star cluster NGC 290. It’s located in the Small Magellanic Cloud, about 200,000 light-years away from Earth. Held together by gravity, star clusters can crowd in hundreds of thousands of stars. Stars in these globular clusters are usually relatively young and can exist for many billions of years. This image of NGC 290 was taken in 2008.
This panorama image brilliantly shows off a nebula lying in one of the brightest parts of the Milky Way. The Giant Nebula in Carina, NGC 3372, houses several massive stars and constantly changing nebulae, the most energetic being Eta Carina. The impressive nebula spans over 300 light-years and houses billions of stars. Hubble shot this controlled colored image in 2009 and it was the most detailed one of the Carina Nebula ever taken before NASA released this Hubble shot of Carina's "mystic mountain." Happy birthday, Hubble!