Hubble is still unraveling as the James Webb telescope snaps early images of the universe

  • Since its launch in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has made revolutionary achievements in astronomy.
  • The new James Webb Space Telescope is popular, but Hubble has capabilities, such as capturing visible and ultraviolet light, that the Webb lacks.
  • The two telescopes will join forces to study the cosmos in even greater detail.

For three decades, the Hubble Space Telescope has provided breathtaking cosmic views.

As the world braces for NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope, the aging Hubble continues to be an astronomical workhorse, providing important observations of the universe while Webb draws attention.

But as a pair, telescopes are even more powerful than they are alone. Together, space-based telescopes will give astronomers a more complete view and understanding of galaxies, stars and planets than ever before.

“The Webb Space Telescope is good news for astronomy and good news for the Hubble Space Telescope as well, as Webb and Hubble enhance and complement each other’s unique capabilities,” Jennifer Wiseman, senior project scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope at NASA’s Goddard Space Station. Flight Center, Insider said.

“Hubble’s scientific return is expected to be strong and even extended this decade as Webb and Hubble explore the universe together.”

Hubble was deployed by Discovery in 1990.

Hubble was deployed by Discovery in 1990.


Ever since Galileo Galilei built his telescope in 1609, astronomers have turned these instruments skyward. Astronomers developed these instruments significantly over time, allowing them to peer even deeper into the universe.

But their observations were limited by Earth’s atmosphere, which absorbs light before it reaches ground-based telescopes. Enter space-based telescopes. Sitting high above the distortion of Earth’s atmosphere and away from light-polluted cities, observatories like Hubble provide, as NASA says, “an unobstructed view of the universe.”

Hubble was launched on the space shuttle Discovery on April 24, 1990. Although originally planned for only 15 years of service, it still travels through space about 340 miles above Earth’s surface, orbiting the planet every 97 minutes.

“Hubble is in good technical shape, even 32 years after its launch, with a strong set of scientific instruments on board,” Wiseman said.


The Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995.

NASA, Jeff Hester and Paul Scowen (Arizona State University)

Over the years, Hubble images have played an important role in our understanding of the universe. It provided evidence of supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies and a measurement of the expansion rate of the universe. Hubble also helped discover and characterize the mysterious dark energy that causes that expansion, tearing galaxies apart. Among his most iconic achievements is its “Pillars of Creation” image, taken in 1995, which shows the newly formed stars shining in the Eagle Nebula.

And Hubble is still snapping stunning pictures, even after Webb began delivering images from its science observations in July. Hubble recently snapped an image of star-studded NGC 6540, a globular cluster in the constellation Sagittarius.

A globular cluster NGC 6540 in the constellation Sagittarius, which was captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.

A globular cluster NGC 6540 in the constellation Sagittarius, which was captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.

ESA/Hubble and NASA, R. Cohen

Both Webb and Hubble are space-based telescopes, but they differ in many ways. Hubble sees ultraviolet light, visible light and a small part of infrared, while Webb will mainly look at the universe in infrared.

Webb, which is 100 times more powerful than Hubble, will be able to look at objects whose light was emitted more than 13.5 billion years ago, which Hubble cannot see. That’s because this light is shifted to the infrared wavelengths that Webb is specifically designed to detect.

But because Webb is designed this way, it will also miss celestial objects in the visible and ultraviolet light that Hubble can see.

“In fact, Hubble is the only major-class observatory that can access UV wavelengths,” Wiseman said.

A collage shows pictures from the Hubble and James Webb space telescopes side by side

A deep-field image from the Hubble Space Telescope, left, and a deep-field image from the James Webb Space Telescope, right.


While Webb has been touted as Hubble’s successor, the two space-based observatories will join forces to explore the universe together.

Wiseman shows how they will provide insights into how stars are born within clouds of cosmic dust and spread across most galaxies. “Hubble, for example, can detect and analyze in detail the hot blue and UV light burning from star-forming nebulae in nearby galaxies,” Wiseman said, adding, “This can be compared to the power of star formation in the early universe as discovered with Webb.”

The two space-based telescopes will also combine their sights to peer into the atmospheres of other worlds, searching for signs that might harbor life.

Astronomers typically look for the ingredients that support terrestrial life — liquid water, a constant source of energy, carbon and other elements — when hunting for life-supporting planets. In 2001, Hubble made the first direct measurement of an exoplanet’s atmosphere.

“In our own galaxy, understanding of planets within and beyond our solar system will be greatly enhanced by the combination of Webb and Hubble,” Wiseman said, adding, “Signatures of water, methane and other atmospheric components will be identified using the spectroscopic capabilities of combined Webb and Hubble.”

Artist's impression of a planet orbiting a yellow, Sun-like star called HD 209458 - the first direct detection of the atmosphere of a planet orbiting a star outside our solar system.

In 2001, Hubble made the first direct detection of a world’s atmosphere orbiting a star beyond our solar system. Artist’s impression of the planet, which orbits a star called HD 209458.

G. Bacon (STScI/AVL)

And although Webb may be seen as the shiny new toy in astronomy, Hubble’s unique abilities in capturing visible and ultraviolet light still make it a sought-after tool for understanding the cosmos. “Hubble is really at the peak of its scientific performance right now,” Wiseman said. That’s thanks to a team of NASA technical experts on the ground who monitor and quickly address any technical challenges that arise, she added.

“The number of proposals from scientists around the world who want to use Hubble has grown to over 1,000 a year, with only the highest fraction selected for actual observations,” Wiseman said, adding: “Many of these complement observations of Webb’s proposed. “

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