Even after 25 years the Hubble Space Telescope continues to churn out stunning imagery nearly everywhere it trains its “eye.” In this case, Hubble has captured a blue bubble around a Wolf–Rayet star known as WR 31a which is located roughly 30,000 light years away.
Hubble peering into constellation of Carina (The Keel)
For a “broken” telescope the Hubble still affords the world beautiful imagery nearly every week and leap day, as it happens, is no exception.
For all the servicing that NASA carried out on the telescope when it still had a space shuttle program, it’s easy to forget that the European Space Agency is NASA’s partner in the telescope and it’s for this reason that the ESA was responsible for reporting on the image, albeit on the NASA website.
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“The distinctive blue bubble appearing to encircle WR 31a is a Wolf–Rayet nebula — an interstellar cloud of dust, hydrogen, helium and other gases,” the ESA explained. “Created when speedy stellar winds interact with the outer layers of hydrogen ejected by Wolf–Rayet stars, these nebulae are frequently ring-shaped or spherical.”
The bubble is estimated to be about 20,000 years old (from formation) and is expanding rapidly at a clip of about 136,700 miles per hour. The star from which it was formed has a cosmological life of next to nothing at about 250,000 years. Or as astronomers explain it, that’s a mere “blink of an eye.”
The 20,000-year-old nebula is truly spectacular in its appearance given the broad emission lines of helium, nitrogen and carbon that are ridiculously hot and massive. WR stars can reach a size of nearly 20 times the Earth’s sun, run 5 to 30 times as hot and their brightness levels can exceed the Earth’s Sun by as much as a factor of 30. Our sun has been burning brightly for billions of years and it’s about half way through its life so the life span of this star is truly insignificant.
Additional finds in the Hubble’s 25th year of service, and history
In 2015, the Hubble along with two other telescopes found a baby blue galaxy, which at 13.1 billion lights years away is the furthest galaxy ever found. The galaxy was, for some reason, given the name EGS-zs8-1. Hubble also treated space fanatics to spectacular images of a barred spiral galaxy in 2015.
The Hubble space telescope has had quite the storied life. Its launch was delayed for a number of years owing to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster that saw the NASA program grind to an abrupt halt while the other shuttles could be deemed safe to return to space. Additionally, the Hubble ran astronomically over budget with $300 million originally earmarked for it’s manufacture. That number rose to $2.5 billion before launch.
Within weeks of being put into surface the Hubble seriously disappointed with its first returned images that indicated a serious problem with its optical system. The Hubble’s inability to achieve a final sharp focus and the quality was nothing short of dreadful given its astronomical (pun intended) price tag.
Despite its initial failings, the Hubble has proved a workhorse over the year after the mirror flaw was fixed and other subsequent missions upgraded the Hubble sufficiently to provide images like the one released today.
Hubble will likely become the “red-headed stepson” of telescopes if the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope is successful when it builds itself following launch in 2017. The Webb will have a sensitivity of about 100 times that of the Hubble.