On two days each year, astronomy enthusiasts around the country — and the world —celebrate National Astronomy Day. For 2016, those days are May 14 and October 8.
Founded in 1973 by Doug Berger, president of the Astronomical Association of Northern California, Astronomy Day asks us all to gaze upwards and contemplate the beauty of our surrounding universe and perhaps stand in awe of our fortuitous place in both space and time. Not only is it astonishing in itself that we live on a planet that has the capability to support life — and that life actually arose despite unseemly conditions — but we’re also fortunate enough to live in a time in which technology gives us the capabilities to peer into the vastness of space and glimpse worlds and galaxies beyond what we were ever able to imagine.
The universe is immense (around 14 billion light years from end to end), but within that vastness lie objects that still baffle our current intellectual and scientific abilities. So today, let’s recognize a particular space-faring telescope that has allowed us to pull back the black cosmic veil and shed light on some of the most astounding structures our universal home has to offer.
Hubble Space Telescope
Launched aboard space shuttle Discovery on April 24, 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope was the first of its kind, and to date it’s taken more than 1.2 million images of our surrounding universe. Despite early malfunctions with its mirrors (which it uses to focus on far-flung objects), astronauts replaced and corrected those components and Hubble was back in operation. Hubble’s first image left the scientific community in awe, and it was humanity’s first step into truly understanding what lies beyond our small solar neighborhood.
While admittedly not astonishing to most, this first image showed a level of detail that ground-based telescopes could only dream of capturing. After some fine-tuning and tweaking of its instrumentation, the Hubble team was able to calibrate the telescope to peer further and further into the black and to capture more astonishing images than we could have imagined. You can go to Hubble’s website to see a gallery of those amazing images.
One of the most remarkable images from Hubble took the scientific community by storm. On December 18 and December 28, 1995, Hubble turned its gaze to a blank space in the constellation Ursa Major and took a series of observations (i.e. photographs). The results of those observations are nothing short of breathtaking. What was by all accounts an empty patch of sky turned out to reveal one of the most unimaginable scenes that nobody was expecting — later termed the Hubble Deep Field image.
In an unassuming patch of black space, Hubble revealed a cosmic highway of galaxies. What’s truly astounding is that this image isn’t a mixture of galaxies and stars. To the contrary, every single speck of light you see in this image is a galaxy. I’ll say that again. Every speck is a GALAXY, in themselves each made up of trillions stars like our own. Even in the dark there is light, and lots of it.
To understand the scope of this image’s importance, take a pen and extend your arm its full length towards the sky. The head of the pen is the size of the area Hubble trained its camera. Think about that. This image is the result of only a pen head’s spot in the sky, and yet that one minuscule area revealed more galaxies than you can reasonably count. Multiply what you see here by the entire rest of the universe (trillions upon trillions of galaxies) and our place in the universe quickly comes into perspective. And then ask yourself if you believe we’re truly alone.
Over the years, Hubble has taken millions of observations, and it’s only scratched the surface of what’s within our observable universe. To celebrate Astronomy Day, take a few minutes and peruse Hubble’s massive collection of images from its truly remarkable life. Below are just a few of my personal favorites.
Happy Astronomy Day!