The Hubble Space Telescope is arguably one of the most influential achievements of science. During the more than 25 years of its, ah, stellar performance it has let astronomers scrutinize 40,000 objects in the universe, taken a million stunning images, spawned 10,000 scientific papers, been used for an average of 40 doctoral research papers each year, helped earn a Nobel Prize, and has enthralled the world by displaying the mysterious, beautiful universe to us all.
It has inspired musical compositions and a variety of art. Its images adorn T-shirts and murals and everything from album covers to postage stamps. The single Eagle Nebula image titled “The Pillars of Creation”—as much a work of gorgeous universal art as a revealing study of how stars are born—has been posted in uncounted classrooms to inspire students and has been viewed with awe by billions around the globe.
Other Hubble images (it can image not only in visible light but also in penetrating ultraviolet and infrared) have given us invaluable new knowledge of our solar system’s eight planets and 182 moons, and of our whole universe. The Hubble Deep Field image, for example, a long exposure taken of just a minuscule portion of sky equivalent to a grain of rice held at arm’s length—a portion of sky thought to be utterly empty—revealed 1,500 primitive galaxies that assembled when the universe was in its infancy. Subsequent Ultra Deep Field images have amazed us even more.
Its scientific leaps in astronomy and physics include proof that supermassive black holes exist, pegging the age of the universe at 13.8 billion years, not only imaging the first planet ever actually seen that orbits a star other than our own but also analyzing its atmosphere (thousands of other exoplanets have been detected by scopes such as Kepler, but have yet to be actually seen), and showing us protoplanetary discs that are condensing into new planets around other stars in the same way our own solar system had to have formed.
But maybe its greatest achievement is simply to vividly showcase what science can do for us.