15 Things We’ve Learned About the Universe From the Hubble Space Telescope

Launched 25 years ago, the Hubble Space Telescope is a veritable manufacturing plant of discoveries, solving mysteries of the universe and raising tantalizing new possibilities about where we’ve come from and where we are going. Here are 15 things we’ve learned from the Hubble Space Telescope.

1. WE SHOULD PUT 14 BILLION CANDLES ON THE UNIVERSE'S BIRTHDAY CAKE.  

Galaxies are moving apart, which means at some point they must have been close together. One method to figure out the age of the universe involved using Hubble to determine speed, distance, and acceleration. Scientists could then work out the time necessary for current galactic distances to be reached. The universe's birthday cake requires 14 billion candles.

2. QUASARS CALL GALACTIC CORES HOME.

Quasars are extraordinarily weird. They're the size of our solar system but as bright as entire galaxies that are populated with billions and billions of stars. Scientists used Hubble to track down the home of these celestial high beams: galactic cores.

3. WE CAN SEE "BABY PHOTOS" OF THE UNIVERSE. 

There's no "now" in space. Space is big and light takes a very long time to reach our little corner of the universe. When Hubble peered deeply into space to photograph distant galaxies, scientists were astonished by the number it captured: 3000. But none of the 3000 galaxies pictured in the "Hubble Deep Field" were recent. Hubble literally photographed galaxies from billions of years in the past. (That's how long it took the light to reach us.) In other words, the Hubble Deep Field is comprised of galactic baby pictures from the dawn of time. 

4. WE WERE WRONG ABOUT THE SLOWING EXPANSION OF THE UNIVERSE.

It just makes sense that after the literal eternity which has elapsed since the Big Bang, the expansion of the universe would slow. The Hubble Space Telescope has news for us, though: The expansion of the universe is actually increasing in speed. Why? Dark energy. Of course, we're not even sure what dark energy is, but the working theory is that it's responsible for the acceleration.  

5. PLUTO HAS MORE MOONS THAN WE ANTICIPATED. 

In 2005, scientists discovered two new moons of Pluto using the Hubble Space Telescope. After the New Horizons spacecraft to Pluto launched in January 2006, the possibility of undiscovered moons became a big worry. Unlike planets, small moons can lack the gravity to hold on to their collision debris. A rock hitting a tiny moon might send many more rocks back into space. Because debris the size of a grain of rice could have destroyed New Horizons, the team went to work discovering as many moons as it could. In the end, Hubble discovered four moons around Pluto, bringing its total number to five. New Horizons scientists modeled the newly discovered moons, and were able to avoid disaster.                                                                  

6. WE'RE BEING TREATED TO A CELESTIAL GROUNDHOG DAY.

To those of us without advanced degrees in the subject, physics can seem really weird. There might be nothing weirder, then, than the Groundhog Day supernova. Nine billion years ago, a star blew up. Gravity from intermediary galaxies have bent and influenced light rays from this doomed star in such a way that the light takes different paths to arrive here, some longer than others. This means we've seen the exact same moment in time on more than one occasion. So far, scientists have observed the same supernova four times and counting

7. SUPERMASSIVE BLACK HOLES ARE REAL.

Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

Einstein predicted black holes with his general theory of relativity, though actually finding them has been something of a problem for scientists. In 1971, Cygnus X-1 was all but confirmed as a black hole, ending years of debate. But around the same time, a new hypothesis was emerging about supermassive black holes that resided at the centers of galaxies. Enter the Hubble Space Telescope, which found in galaxy M87 "conclusive evidence" of the existence of supermassive black holes. It is one of the most astonishing discoveries in the telescope's 25-year history. 

8. IT'S ILLUMINATED THE DETAILS OF EXOPLANETS. 

Exoplanets are planets that orbit distant stars. Many have been discovered, and Hubble has been instrumental in fleshing out what we know about these mysterious worlds. Hubble instruments have performed atmospheric studies of such planets similar to GJ 1132b, a Venus-like world 230 trillion miles away that was just discovered this year. (Atmospheric studies of GJ 1132b itself are still to come.) Hubble has also helped scientists figure out the actual color of an exoplanet—a first. The creatively named HD 189733b is now known to be cobalt blue. (Its color comes not from oceans but from its silicate atmosphere.) Hubble didn't stop there, though. It has also helped scientists create the first exoplanet weather map. The forecast for WASP-43b: hot—3000°F hot—with occasional temperatures reaching a “cool” 1000°F.

9. GANYMEDE HAS AN OCEAN.

Ganymede made quite a splash earlier this year when a subsurface ocean was discovered. But how was that determined, anyway? Scientists used the Hubble Space Telescope to watch auroras on Ganymede. When the auroras didn't behave as expected, scientists knew they had something special. In a statement reported by Space.com, geophysicist Joachim Saur said, "I was always brainstorming how we could use a telescope in other ways. … Is there a way you could use a telescope to look inside a planetary body? Then I thought, the aurorae! Because aurorae are controlled by the magnetic field, if you observe the aurorae in an appropriate way, you learn something about the magnetic field. If you know the magnetic field, then you know something about the moon's interior." In this case, that interior was an ocean. 

10. EUROPA HAS PLUMES, AND THAT MIGHT HELP US FIND LIFE. 

When a world has a subsurface ocean, the great challenge is trying to figure out how to drill down into it and take samples. Plumes make the job much easier. In essence, plumes are giant geysers firing the ocean into space. So instead of spacecraft somehow going into the ocean, plumes help the ocean come to the spacecraft. This is especially important for a world like Europa, which is thought by many to harbor life. In 2013, Hubble scientists discovered plumes on Europa, one of Jupiter's moons. Now that NASA has built a flagship mission around Europa, scientists might soon have a chance at sampling it for life. 

11. THERE ARE NEW WORLDS THAT WE CAN ACTUALLY VISIT. 

The first phase of New Horizons has been successful beyond the dreams of even Alan Stern, the mission's leader. Moreover, the spacecraft still has a lot of power, and its systems are operating at 100 percent. It is presently flying through the mysterious Kuiper Belt—a ring composed primarily of frozen volatiles beyond Neptune—where there is much to learn. The New Horizons team has used Hubble to find new targets for a spacecraft study. If NASA gives the mission extension a green light, the best might be yet to come. 

12. THERE WAS A 10TH PLANET. 

Hubble is good for more than studying exoplanets, moons, and baby galaxies. Scientists have used the space telescope to study strange new planets in our own solar system. Before the International Astronomical Union meddled with the definition of "planet," a tenth planet in the solar system—Eris—was discovered. The secrets of Eris, a Kuiper Belt Object that is now categorized as the second-largest dwarf planet (behind Pluto), were unlocked by Hubble, including its size and mass.                                                                                                

13. THERE IS SUCH A THING AS CLUMPY DARK MATTER.

Thanks to Hubble, scientists have been able to map dark matter in the universe, and have worked out that normal matter (things made of atoms—in this case, galaxies) gathers near dense areas of dark matter. In addition, Hubble's findings suggest that "dark matter has grown increasingly 'clumpy' as it collapses under gravity." NASA compares Hubble's success in mapping dark matter to "mapping a city from nighttime aerial snapshots showing only streetlights. … These new map images are equivalent to seeing a city, its suburbs and country roads in daylight for the first time."

14. IT'S A GALAXY-EAT-GALAXY UNIVERSE.

When scientists used Hubble to study the Andromeda galaxy, they expected to find very old stars. They were surprised, then, to learn that the stars ranged in age from six to 13 billion years old. They suspect that the young stars found their way into Andromeda through cosmic collisions. In other words, Andromeda ate smaller galaxies and kept the stars for itself. 

15. PROTOPLANETARY DISKS ARE OBSERVABLE.

For a long time, scientists believed that "protoplanetary disks"—disks of dust around stars that might form solar systems—would be impossible to see. It was thought that the disks would be obscured by clouds of gas. Hubble proved that suspicion wrong, and has discovered many such disks. As a result, scientists have new insights into how planets and their associated solar systems are created. 

Why Do Astronauts Use Space Pens Instead of Pencils?

by Alex Carter

It's often said that NASA spent millions of dollars developing a pen that could write in zero gravity, while the Russians just used pencils. It was a warning about looking for a high-tech solution to a mundane problem, of American excess vs. Russian sensibility.

It's also entirely false.

To understand why NASA was so keen on a workable space pen, you have to understand that the pencil is not suited for space travel. The problem is that they have a habit of breaking, shattering, and leaving graphite dust behind. The wood, too, can make it a serious fire risk in the pressurized, oxygen-rich capsule. All of these common issues become life-threatening hazards in space.

Still, there were attempts to bring pencils into space. In 1965, the agency famously ordered 34 specially designed mechanical pencils in hopes of finding the perfect writing tool for astronauts. But at $128 each, they weren't exactly cheap, and it only got worse when the public got wind of the price. Thankfully, an alternative was not too far behind.

Astronaut Walt Cunningham, pilot of the Apollo 7 mission, uses the Fisher Space Pen while in flight.
Astronaut Walt Cunningham, pilot of the Apollo 7 mission, uses the Fisher Space Pen while in flight.
NASA

The Space Pen was invented by Paul Fisher, head of Fisher Pen Company. Unlike a typical pen, the Fisher Space Pen uses compressed nitrogen to force ink out of the nozzle, instead of using gravity to make it flow. This made it the ideal device for writing in space, while upside down, or submerged underwater. It wrote crisp and clean, without the safety concerns of a pencil.

Fisher contacted NASA to give his pens a try in 1965 and in 1967, after months of testing, they were impressed enough to bulk buy 400 of them for future missions. Contrary to those urban legends, NASA didn't commission the pen or contribute any funding to it. The Soviets soon ditched their grease pencils and were eventually buying the same Fisher pens as NASA, too. The price? After a 40 percent discount from Fisher, both space agencies were paying $2.39 a pen.

The Fisher Space Pens made their debut in 1968 on the Apollo 7 mission and have been involved in all manned missions since.

So, the short reason is that astronauts only used pencils when they were waiting for something better to come along. As soon as it did, they switched and never looked back. Even the Russians thought it was a good idea.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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NASA Has a Plan to Stop the Next Asteroid That Threatens Life on Earth
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iStock

An asteroid colliding catastrophically with Earth within your lifetime is unlikely, but not out of the question. According to NASA, objects large enough to threaten civilization hit the planet once every few million years or so. Fortunately, NASA has a plan for dealing with the next big one when it does arrive, Forbes reports.

According to the National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan [PDF] released by the White House on June 21, there are a few ways to handle an asteroid. The first is using a gravity tractor to pull it from its collision course. It may sound like something out of science fiction, but a gravity tractor would simply be a large spacecraft flying beside the asteroid and using its gravitational pull to nudge it one way or the other.

Another option would be to fly the spacecraft straight into the asteroid: The impact would hopefully be enough to alter the object's speed and trajectory. And if the asteroid is too massive to be stopped by a spacecraft, the final option is to go nuclear. A vehicle carrying a nuclear device would be launched at the space rock with the goal of either sending it in a different direction or breaking it up into smaller pieces.

Around 2021, NASA will test its plan to deflect an asteroid using a spacecraft, but even the most foolproof defense strategy will be worthless if we don’t see the asteroid coming. For that reason, the U.S. government will also be working on improving Near-Earth Object (NEO) detection, the technology NASA uses to track asteroids. About 1500 NEOs are already detected each year, and thankfully, most of them go completely unnoticed by the public.

[h/t Forbes]

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