For almost 30 years now, the Hubble Space Telescope has transformed how we see the cosmos. In terms of scientific output as well as making visible the splendors of the sky above us, the Hubble has been arguably the most consequential telescope ever to peer into space.
To commemorate 30 years of Hubble science and images, NASA and the European Space Agency have released 30 previously unpublished images of galaxies, star clusters and nebula from what is known as the Caldwell catalogue, a collection compiled by British amateur astronomer and science communicator Sir Patrick Caldwell-Moore.
These images have been taken by Hubble throughout its time in space and used for scientific research or for engineering tests, but NASA had not fully processed the images for public release until now.
At the end of a difficult year, they offer the glitter, the grandeur and the cosmic marvel that the Hubble provides so well and that perhaps people could use right now.
The Hubble famously entered into Earth orbit and began its mission with the calamitous discovery of a near-fatal mistake — the main mirror had been ground incorrectly and could not accomplish much viewing. The telescope was about 340 miles from Earth and never before had NASA undertaken a mission to repair a spacecraft that far away.
But in 1993 seven astronauts flew to the Hubble on the space shuttle Endeavour, spent five days repairing it and the rest is history. In all, astronauts visited the observatory five times to fix it, maintain it, and improve it. The Hubble is now considerably more capable than it was in its early day, and is expected to last for another decade or two.
Today, Hubble has two primary cameras to capture images of the cosmos. Called the Advanced Camera for Surveys and the Wide Field Camera 3, they work together to provide wide-field imaging over a broad range of wavelengths.
The telescope’s visible-light observations allow for the viewing of cosmic objects in the wavelengths of light we see with our own eyes, but in a much greater level of detail.
Infrared observations extend our vision, detecting lower-energy light than our eyes can see and peering through shrouds of dust to image some of the faintest and farthest objects yet discovered. Hubble’s ultraviolet vision extends our view in the opposite direction, opening a window on the evolving universe and allowing us to glimpse some of the more violent events in the cosmos.
The original Caldwell catalogue is a collection of 109 star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies that can be observed by amateur astronomers.
The list was compiled by Moore to complement the much older Messier catalogue, assembled by French comet-hunter Charles Messier in the 1700s and 1800s and including 110 relatively bright but fuzzy objects. Those smudgy spots in the sky identified by Messier have since been identified as distant galaxies, star clusters, and nebulae. The Messier catalogue has been revised over the years and includes deep-sky objects that can be viewed in detail using larger telescopes but are also bright enough to be seen through a small telescope.
While the Messier catalogue is used widely by amateur astronomers, Moore knew that Messier’s list was not compiled for that purpose and excluded many of the sky’s brightest deep-sky objects. The Messier catalogue was actually compiled as a list of known objects that might be confused with comets.
The Caldwell catalogue highlights galaxies, star clusters, and nebulae that are not included in Messier’s catalogue but that are also bright enough to be seen by amateur astronomers. He intentionally avoided including any of the Messier objects in his catalogue, hoping to expand his fellow amateur astronomers’ cosmic horizons.
In addition, the Caldwell objects are split between the northern and southern hemisphere skies, while Messier’s only covered the northern skies.
Moore (1923-2012) used his other surname – Caldwell – to identify xxx of the list, since the “M” of “Moore” was already used in the Messier catalogue.
Moore assembled his catalogue pre-Hubble during the 1980s, with 46 star clusters, 35 galaxies, and 28 nebulae — 109 objects in all. From nearby clouds of gas and dust that are left over from dying stars to remote galaxies that formed billions of years ago, the Caldwell catalogue is a celestial smorgasbord.
While the Hubble Space Telescope has not taken images of every object in the Caldwell catalogue, it has observed 98 of them as of August 2020. Processed images for 87 Caldwell objects are displayed here, including the 30 new ones. More images may be added to Hubble’s catalog of Caldwell objects in the future.
Because of the Hubble’s detailed field of view, some of its pictures do not capture the entirety of a Caldwell object, sometimes instead zooming in on clusters of young stars in the arms of a spiral galaxy, stars on the outskirts of a cluster, or the zombie star at the heart of a nebula. But in other cases, a mosaic of Hubble observations are assembled to create a complete or nearly complete portrait of the celestial marvel.
The innumerable objects of the cosmos as presented by Hubble in visible light (and then color coded) are especially evocative and compelling, capturing the shapes and colors of nebulae and galaxies. But there are downsides to seeing in visible light alone which are illustrated here: it makes a glorious image of a nebula but cannot see through the thick clouds of dust.
The James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch next year, will have a larger mirror than Hubble and will have capabilities Hubble does not. It sees only in infrared wavelengths, which allow for much deeper and vision that can see through nebula. Because of that (and more), it will be scientific advance on Hubble. But it will not provides images quite as dramatic as those captured by the Hubble’s visible light capacity.
Like many avid stargazers, Sir Patrick Moore developed an interest in astronomy at a very young age, which blossomed into a lifelong obsession. Educated at home because of a heart condition, he discovered the world of astronomy at six years old when he read a late 19th century tome on the solar system.
At 11 he became the youngest-ever member of the British Astronomical Association. He published his first paper, on small craters in the Mare Crisium on the moon, at the age of 13. At 14 he took over the running of a small observatory near his house.
He became a prolific amateur astronomer and writer, gaining prominence as the presenter of the BBC documentary series The Sky at Night for over 40 years and earning knighthood in 2001 for “services to the popularization of science and to broadcasting.”
The Caldwell Catalogue was first published in Sky & Telescope in 1995.
While revolutionizing our understanding and appreciation of the structure and beauty of the cosmos, the Hubble has also been a scientific bonanza.
- Played a significant role in determining that the universe is 13.7 billion years old.
- Provided the information that has led scientists to conclude that nearly all galaxies harbor supermassive black holes.
- Has helped scientists determine the process of how planets are born.
- Detected the first organic molecule discovered on a planet outside our solar system.
- Identified a distant supernova that suggests the universe only recently began speeding up.
- Found four moons around dwarf planet Pluto, geysers on the moon Europa and so much more.
The image below of an “Einstein Ring” is a very recent example of the kind of science that the Hubble makes possible. The galaxy cluster, named GAL-CLUS-022058s or “Molten Ring,” is not in the Caldwell catalogue. But it was too wonderful to leave out.
Marc Kaufman is the author of two books about space: “Mars Up Close: Inside the Curiosity Mission” and “First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Search for Life Beyond Earth.” He is also an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. He began writing the column in October 2015, when NASA’s NExSS initiative was in its infancy. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported and informed by NASA’s Astrobiology Program, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.