Triangulum galaxy

Stronger Than Ever

Learn how staff at the institute launched groundbreaking science programs with the Hubble Space Telescope.

An Ultraviolet Library of Stellar Evolution
Ultraviolet light provides a unique opportunity to study how stars grow and shape material around them. Since Hubble is uniquely capable of gathering these data, the director of the institute approved 1,000 orbits for the Ultraviolet Legacy Library of Young Stars as Essential Standards (ULLYSES) in 2019.The three-year program will create a spectroscopic library of young high- and low-mass stars in the local universe. The design and targets of these observations were selected in partnership with the astronomical community and the data will be released with advanced search and visualization packages, making research quicker and much more immediately meaningful.

Every few weeks, scientists using data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope publish revolutionary findings that cause us to reconsider our understanding of the universe. In 2019, teams identified a black hole that models didn’t predict, found magnesium and iron gas streaming from a planet 900 light-years away, and reassessed the universe’s expansion rate. Learn how teams at the institute are working to enable discoveries through 2025 and beyond. 

Bolstering Webb’s Upcoming Observations

Hubble is vital to future astronomical discoveries, including those made by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. For several years, the calls for proposals to observe with Hubble have included a request for science ideas that maximize the science return of both telescopes.

In these cases, as soon as the observations are made, they are immediately accessible to the public—there is no proprietary period—which means that scientists around the world can pair them with other data of the same targets as soon as the data are posted to our archives.

Recent initiatives include a program that identifies a slew of the lowest-mass stars, which are difficult to observe, so Webb can follow up to examine how these brown dwarfs form. Hubble is taking ultraviolet spectroscopic measurements of nearby galaxies to learn about their histories, shapes, masses, and compositions—and provide a key for Webb’s interpretation of future infrared results of highly redshifted ultraviolet light from galaxies in the early universe. 

By calling for and making these complementary observations, as well as preparing for workshops to help prepare astronomers in 2020, Hubble is not only releasing its own discoveries, but also helping to maximize the scientific gains Webb will have during its mission.

Maintaining an Extraordinary Telescope

Hubble is a scientific workhorse partially because it has four diverse, currently active science instruments. Strengthening and lengthening the lifetime of its Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, which gathers and spreads ultraviolet light through spectroscopy, was a focus in 2019. 

This instrument requires regular updates to its settings to ensure it is observing within a pristine region of the detector. However, after Hubble’s Ultraviolet Legacy Library of Young Stars as Essential Standards (ULLYSES) program was approved, the forecast for the next update was estimated to be needed much sooner than initially planned for the instrument’s far-ultraviolet channel. 

Staff recognized the challenge and immediately set to work to plan the use of the detector’s next lifetime position. As a result, observations may be made with not one, but two settings beginning in 2020, helping to extend the spectrograph’s lifetime performance to 2025.

Eta Carinae shown in visible and ultraviolet light
The explosion may have happened hundreds of years ago, but astronomers are continuing to learn about Eta Carinae, a two-star system that has erupted repeatedly. In 2019, researchers used Hubble to examine it in ultraviolet light, mapping the glow of magnesium embedded in warm gas—and learning more about how the eruptions began. The ultraviolet light Hubble detected represents the fast and energetic ejection of material that may have been expelled by the star shortly before the expulsion of the bipolar bubbles.

The staff members who support Hubble were equally attentive to its other instruments, including the Advanced Camera for Surveys, Wide Field Camera 3, and the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, as well as the telescope’s gyroscopes and other components, making updates to overcome four minor anomalies and return Hubble to science in mere hours, faster than previously possible.

Receiving Distinguished Honors

Hubble, which has likely exceeded every expectation held by scientists when it launched, was recognized by NASA in its 2019 Senior Review of Operating Missions as a top-rated Tier 1 observatory along with NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. It was awarded this status in part for the high publication and citation rates of its data. In 2019, Hubble’s new and archival data were used in over 1,000 peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals—totaling more than 17,000 to date.

The demand for time to observe with Hubble is stronger than ever. This year, investigators from more than 40 countries requested what amounted to more than 24,000 orbits. The director approved over 2,700 orbits for more than 180 proposals. Hubble’s scientific productivity, which is expected to continue to climb in the coming years, will also amplify the output of myriad facilities in the next decade.