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Red and teal gas and dust with bright blue stars

For the people behind the Hubble mission, its 30th year may have been its most extraordinary yet.

About This Article

No one, anywhere on Earth, had a normal 2020. Orbiting high above it all, the Hubble Space Telescope marked 30 years of operations in April, another exceptional, once-unthinkable milestone in a historic year. As daily life stalled with the spread of COVID-19, Hubble science shifted to fully remote operations as staff at the institute and scientists around the world quarantined at home. In-person celebrations of the observatory’s 30th anniversary were largely converted to online events, but science operations experienced no interruptions. Papers using Hubble data continued to be published in scientific journals and publicized through the institute’s office of public outreach through a total of 36 news releases.

Fast Adaptation

The planned time allocation committee meeting to review science proposals to observe with Hubble was rapidly reorganized to take place on schedule in May, but as a virtual rather than in-person meeting. Seventy astronomers from the worldwide community participated. As in the previous two cycles, Cycle 28 followed a dual-anonymous procedure, and the number of first-time principal investigators increased. One-third of principal investigators for the cycle that began in October 2020 were taking on that role for the first time.

Graph with teal and purple lines next to two images of the stars’ locations
Hubble’s ULLYSES program will observe the ultraviolet light stars emit—and spread that light into its component wavelengths, which are known as spectra. This graph, which shows two spectra, maps how much far-ultraviolet light the two stars are emitting through the gas in their surrounding galaxies. Learn more about what the data show.
Large blue circle with a star at center
NGC 2020, shown in Hubble’s 30th anniversary image, has been created by a solitary mammoth star 200,000 times brighter than our Sun. The blue gas was ejected by the star through a series of eruptive events during which it lost part of its outer envelope of material. Explore the full image.

Looking Toward the Future

Observations for the ambitious Director’s Discretionary program ULLYSES (Ultraviolet Legacy Library of Young Stars as Essential Standards) continued and the first set of data was released in November. The program will build an ultraviolet spectral library of young stars and their environments, a fundamental reference for the astronomical community. Not only is ULLYSES the largest Hubble program to date, Hubble is also the only telescope capable of undertaking such an endeavor due to its unique ultraviolet capabilities.

Working to ensure Hubble’s scientific productivity for as long as possible, a major adjustment was developed for the observatory’s Cosmic Origins Spectrograph. It will be moved to its fifth lifetime position to accommodate unavoidable wear on the instrument. A new, innovative approach to decouple the locations of the wavelength calibration and science spectra will vastly extend the capability of sensitive far-ultraviolet spectroscopy to perhaps 2030 or beyond.

Hubble has a long history with observations that play a central role in fundamental physics. One of its original key projects was to determine the value of the local expansion rate of the universe, known as the Hubble constant, and later studies with Hubble revealed evidence for the accelerating expansion of the universe and the existence of dark energy. Investigations like these continue, with three parallel efforts on Hubble aimed at reducing the uncertainty in the value of the Hubble constant with the hope of revealing new physics.  

Bringing the Universe Home

Another unanticipated area of science where Hubble continues to make key contributions is exoplanet science. When it launched in 1990, the only planets we knew of were the ones in our own solar system. Now Hubble regularly tells us about the atmospheres of distant worlds unlike anything we’ve known before.

As Hubble science pushes the boundaries of our knowledge and understanding, it helps us embrace the unknown. In a year that seemed defined by the distances between us, Hubble continued its rare achievement of producing science with appeal to everyone from astrophysicists to kindergarteners. However uncertain the future, Hubble continues to bring the universe home for all of us.

Hubble in orbit
Hubble was the first large space-based astronomical observatory when it launched in 1990, a long-time dream of astronomers seeking a clear view of the cosmos above the Earth’s obscuring atmosphere. Astronomer Lyman Spitzer outlined the concept in his 1946 paper “Astronomical Advantages of an Extra-terrestrial Observatory.” Explore Hubble’s history.