Apr 25, 2010 10:15 AM by MSNBC
The team behind the Hubble Space Telescope is celebrating the orbiting observatory's 20th birthday with a picture that shows a cosmic pillar of gas and dust piled high in the Carina Nebula.
The image, captured in February by Hubble's brand-new Wide Field Camera 3, may look like a bizarre landscape from J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" fantasy. But the actual story is more fantastic than many works of fiction.
The three-light-year-tall pillar of star stuff is about 7,500 light-years away in the southern constellation Carina. Scorching radiation and streams of charged particles from super-hot newborn stars in the nebula are shaping and compressing the pillar, causing still more new stars to form within it.
Streamers of hot ionized gas can be seen flowing off the ridges of the structure. Wispy veils of gas and dust, illuminated by starlight, float around its towering peaks. The denser parts of the pillar are resisting being eroded by radiation, much as a towering butte in Utah's Monument Valley withstands erosion by water and wind.
Nestled inside the dense mountain are fledgling stars. Long streamers of gas can be seen shooting in opposite directions off the pedestal at the top of the image. Another pair of jets is visible at another peak near the center of the image. These jets (known as HH 901 and HH 902, respectively) are the signpost for new starbirth. The jets are launched by swirling disks around the young stars, which allow material to slowly accrete onto the stars' surfaces.
The colors in the composite image correspond to the glow of oxygen (blue), hydrogen and nitrogen (green), and sulfur (red).
The Carina Nebula image was released late Thursday to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Hubble's launch aboard the shuttle Discovery, on April 24, 1990. Since then, Hubble has beamed hundreds of thousands of images back to Earth - and provided the data for thousands of scientific papers on subjects ranging from the age of the universe to the detection of planets beyond our solar system.
Five space shuttle missions have been flown to repair the space telescope in orbit, starting with a 1993 mission that corrected Hubble's flawed optics. The latest service call was made in May 2009. During that flight, spacewalkers installed the Wide Field Camera 3 and the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, fixed two other observing instruments, and replaced worn-out batteries and gyroscopes.
NASA says last year's mission will stand as the final shuttle visit to Hubble. The repairs and upgrades should keep the telescope in operation until at least 2014.