The Age of the Universe
If you thought that Ford Pinto decaying in your yard was ancient, imagine what it's like being 13.75 billion years old. That's how old scientists estimate the Universe to be with the help of information collected from the Hubble Space Telescope. In the grand scheme of things, it shows how infinitesimally young humans are in relation to not only our own planet, but in comparison to the far reaches of space. That's pretty humbling.
"There are spots where continued dark-side use for ages, or the presence of creatures instilled with that energy, can cause the places themselves to radiate with the power of the dark side." -- Luke Skywalker. When you think "dark energy," you can't help but think of the Dark Side of the Force from Star Wars. Fortunately (or unfortunately if you're a Star Wars buff) we're not talking about the cool lightning Dark Sidious used to kill Mace Win-du. It turns out that approximately 70 percent of the Universe is made up of something called dark energy. In layman's terms, dark energy is the inexplicable force that is causing galaxies to fly farther and farther away from each other, going directly against the pull of gravity at accelerating speeds. Just imagine two galaxies marrying and getting sick of each other. They want space. Perhaps the most interesting theory on dark energy is that it could be a sort of dynamic energy fluid or field. Just imagine, if by some science fiction fantasy, it turned out to be an interstellar fuel source for space travel. Not likely, but what could be cooler than a power source called dark energy?
Supermassive Black Holes
"Well, a black hole is this really big thing. It's, um, well, basically it's a mass of... hole... out there." -- Jack O'Neill trying to explain black holes to Teal'c in an episode of Stargate SG-1. Outside of aliens and space travel, black holes may be the most-used idea in science fiction novels, TV shows, and film. They're truly fascinating, spawning ideas of time travel and alternate dimensions. A supermassive black hole happens to the largest class of black hole. There are two theories about their formation. One involves the collapse of a massive star (100 to 1000 solar masses) that gets bigger by eating its version of fatty foods: surrounding gasses and merging with other structures until it becomes "super-sized." Another idea involves the collapse of a massive cloud of gas. Instead of exploding like a supernova, it will start to resemble a red giant that sucks in surrounding matter rapidly. Recently, astronomers using Hubble data have witnessed a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy laying waste to a star, sucking it up rather greedily.
Direct Imaging of Extrasolar Planets
"At first, I was conflicted. We come from very different backgrounds. I'm an alien and she's a Presbyterian." -- Tommy Solomon, 3rd Rock from the Sun What's cooler than discovering alien planets? Aliens themselves, maybe. But you have to start somewhere right? In 2008, astronomers were finally able to directly image a planet (Fomalhaut b) orbiting the distant star Fomalhaut. This would not have been possible without the Hubble. It also helps that interest in extrasolar planets is picking up. There is already talk about getting manned missions to Mars. If that is ever successful, interstellar travel development may very well be the next big thing to focus on. Wouldn't it be nice to see these extrasolar worlds up-close?
The Hubble Constant
Edwin Hubble, the astronomer after whom the telescope gets its name, first theorized that the Universe is expanding. The Hubble constant is what determines the rate at which galaxies are currently moving apart from one another. This ties directly back to the hot topic of dark energy and its brother dark matter. Before the Hubble telescope, the value of the constant was error ridden as determining distances in space is extremely difficult. Since the Hubble's launch, the error in the rate of expansion has been reduced to less than 5 percent -- a remarkable feat.