Hubble just gets better with age

The Hubble Space Telescope celebrates its 20th birthday today with the release of another photo that could come straight from the cover of a 1970s prog rock album.

It shows a small portion of one of the largest known star-birth regions in the galaxy, the Carina Nebula. Three light-year-tall towers of cool hydrogen laced with dust rise from the wall of the nebula.

The nebula is being eroded by a gusher of ultraviolet light from young stars in the region, sculpting the elaborate fantasy shapes.

The most striking feature is a 3.5- trillion-mile-long horizontal jet in the upper right of the picture. It’s being blasted into space by a young star hidden in the tip of the pillar-like structure.

NASA’s longest-lived and most prolific space observatory was launched twenty years ago tomorrow aboard the space shuttle Discovery during the STS-31 mission. Its discoveries, says NASA, have revolutionized nearly all areas of current astronomical research from planetary science to cosmology.

It has observed more than 30,000 celestial targets and amassed more than a half-million pictures in its archive. The last astronaut servicing mission to Hubble in May 2009 made the telescope 100 times more powerful than when it was launched.

“Hubble is undoubtedly one of the most recognized and successful scientific projects in history,” said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “Last year’s space shuttle servicing mission left the observatory operating at peak capacity, giving it a new beginning for scientific achievements that impact our society.”

NASA is also partnering with the Galaxy Zoo consortium of scientists to launch an internet-based astronomy project where amateur astronomers can help divide the galaxies into categories. And it’s creating an educational website called Celebrating Hubble’s 20th Anniversary.