A star-forming region in the Carina Nebula, seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA, ESA, M. Livio and Hubble 20th anniversary team

The Hubble is about to turn 25. That’s an awesome milestone for a piece of hardware that’s vastly exceeded expectations. We’re doing a story that will run between now and the anniversary of the launch next Friday. See also Rachel Feltman’s Speaking of Science blog for coverage. Here’s a verbatim e-mail exchange I had the other day with astrophysicist Mario Livio, about the “Mystic Mountain” pillar of dust and gas (above) that became the 20th anniversary image of the Hubble Space Telescope back in 2010:

JA: “How big is the Mystic Mountain? I mean, like, in hundreds of miles, billions of miles, light years?”

Mario Livio: “It is about 3 light-years tall, which is about 18 trillion miles.”

So here is one of the big insights about outer space: It’s big. And it’s full of big stuff. I know I’m threatening to go over everyone’s head here with the scientific and technical language. Sorry, it just makes me feel smarter to sling the jargon.

The other thing you see in Hubble images is the dynamism of the cosmos. Nothing out there is static. It’s roiling and rumbling. It’s exploding and exuding and entropically eroding. The whole thing is expanding, and thanks to the Hubble and some other telescopes we now know the expansion is accelerating. Hang on for dear life, folks.

I’ll have more to say on the Hubble after this brief intermission when I go find my gate (am at BWI again — my second home!).

[Muzak…]

I’m back. So I’ve already covered space is big and space is dynamic, my two major insights, and now here’s another bonus observation: The Hubble is a great story of human engineering, not only because it works so well but because for a while there it didn’t work very well at all. Spherical aberration: the two most dreaded words in any telescope’s vocabulary. [Mudge from the Boodle suggests two more: “bird poop."] The flawed mirror threatened to render the whole project a disappointment, but in 1993 shuttle astronauts flew to Hubble, grabbed it, and put in an instrument [COSTAR, for “Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement"] that corrected the aberration. Hubble was off to the races.


At NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, employees keep an eye on the Hubble as it keeps an eye on the universe (Photo by Joel Achenbach)