Picturing Infinity: The Hubble Telescope’s Universal View

Spacecraft Hubble: Hubble in Flight, 2007, NASA Throughout May and June, we are inviting people throughout the Smithsonian to talk about photography and astronomy.  Welcome Joseph Caputo, intern at the Smithsonian Magazine. In April 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope was dropped off 353 miles above the surface of the Earth. This tin can the size of a school bus had one mission: Photograph the universe. Today, nearly 20 years and 200,000 pictures later, seven astronauts are lifting off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to upgrade the Hubble telescope for the last time. Sometime in the next decade, it will be retired, replaced by the James Webb Space Telescope. Host Galaxy Cluster to Largest Known Radio Eruption, November 2, 2006, NASA, ESA, and B. McNamara (U Hubble’s legacy so far is more than just a collection of pretty photographs. (And they are beautiful—the colors of space are a mixture of tans, purples and blues against an infinite black.) The images have led to some of the biggest astronomical discoveries in recent years. For instance, we can thank Hubble for the visuals necessary to verify the age of the universe and the existence of dark matter. With its advanced array of lenses and mirrors, the telescope has captured stars being born, supermassive black holes, and explosions so powerful they’ve echoed through space for millions of years. When I was asked to assemble a photo essay for Smithsonian.com featuring "Hubble’s Finest Photographs," I didn’t expect there would be so many stories in the page after page of white dots and celestial clouds. Though it may take the Hubble seconds to capture celestial shapes, it can take scientists years to understand and explain them. Hubble Snaps Images of a Pinwheel-Shaped Galaxy, February 7, 2006, NASA, The Hubble Heritage Team an Let’s take the 2005 photograph of the pinwheel-like galaxy NGC 1309, located 100-million light-years from Earth. Sure the picture could easily hang in a gallery, but more importantly it helped astronomers more accurately calculate the universe’s rate of expansion. By measuring Earth’s distance from the exploding stars in the photograph, scientists have been able to determine that the universe’s expansion is accelerating, because galaxies like NGC 1309 are moving away ever faster. The greatest narrative told by Hubble and Earth’s major telescopes is the evolution of the universe. When we look up at the sky, we are actually looking through time. When we take a picture of the sun, the light that reaches our cameras is already 8 minutes old. It’s impossible to take a picture of the sun as it is right now. The same is true for a faraway star. It’s light must travel trillions of miles and may be millions of years old before it reaches a telescope’s lens. Because of such physics, Hubble has captured stars, now long dead, being born. It’s lets us see galaxies that currently rest sin the pit of a black hole. The Hubble photographs will never give us a complete view of space. It’s like an ant colony trying to map the Earth with one tiny camera pointed upwards. The telescope does, however, give us perspective. We’ve learned that to the universe, our solar system is a village. Population: 8. The Hubble keeps us humble.

Joseph Caputo is an Intern at Smithsonian Magazine.

Leave a Comment

Produced by the Smithsonian Institution Archives. For copyright questions, please see the Terms of Use.