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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.

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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. 

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The Ozone Layer Is Healing, Thanks to an International Ban on Harmful Man-Made Chemicals
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NASA

The ozone layer is on the mend, thanks to a decrease in human-produced chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, in the atmosphere. Using data from NASA's Aura satellite, scientists were able to measure the chemical composition of the thinned gas layer above the Antarctic and found about 20 percent less ozone depletion than there was in 2005. They published their findings on January 4 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

In 1985, UK scientists published a landmark study in the journal Nature announcing their discovery of an annually recurring hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica. (Each September, as the Southern Hemisphere's winter arrives, the Sun's UV rays trigger a reaction between the ozone and chemical elements from CFCs, chlorine and bromine, which destroys the ozone molecules.) The finding led to the Montreal Protocol in 1987, an international treaty that gradually banned the production and use of CFCs in refrigerants, aerosol sprays, solvents, and air conditioners.

In July 2016, Antarctic researchers published a study in the journal Science reporting that the ozone layer appeared to be healing (although it wasn't projected to completely patch up for decades). They tracked this progress by monitoring the Antarctic ozone hole's area, height, and chemical profile. Still, they didn't know whether this progress could be attributed to the Montreal Protocol's mandate.

NASA itself has used Aura to monitor the hole since the mid-2000s. After analyzing data produced by the Microwave Limb Sounder, a satellite instrument aboard Aura that measures trace gases, the space agency has confirmed that the CFC ban has led to the big decrease in ozone depletion during the Antarctic winter.

By winter, ozone-busting chlorine compounds have converted into hydrochloric acid, a process that occurs after it's destroyed ozone particles and reacts with methane. "By around mid-October, all the chlorine compounds are conveniently converted into one gas, so by measuring hydrochloric acid, we have a good measurement of the total chlorine," researcher Susan Strahan said in a NASA statement. Scientists compared these hydrochloric acid levels with nitrous oxide, which is similar in nature to CFCs but isn't diminishing in the atmosphere.

Their study is billed as "the first to use measurements of the chemical composition inside the ozone hole to confirm that not only is ozone depletion decreasing, but that the decrease is caused by the decline in CFCs," according to NASA. But while these initial results are promising, scientists say that the ozone layer's full recovery is still a long way off.

"As far as the ozone hole being gone, we're looking at 2060 or 2080,” study co-author Anne Douglass said. “And even then there might still be a small hole."

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9 Compelling Facts About Neptune
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NASA

Neptune is like a celestial paint swatch: a stunning royal blue that demands attention. The eighth planet in the solar system, it is one half of the ice-giant system (the other half being Uranus), and among the most mysterious worlds circling our Sun. Mental Floss spoke to Mark Hofstadter, a planetary scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, to learn more about this lesser-known planet. Here are a few things you might not know.

1. IT HAS SIX RINGS AND 14 MOONS, ONE OF WHICH HAS GEYSERS BLASTING INTO SPACE.

Neptune is about 30 times farther than we are from the Sun (2.8 billion miles to our 93 million miles)—the farthest in the solar system (aside from the dwarf planets). Its effective temperature, according to NASA, is -353°F. Its mass is 17.1 times that of Earth, and it's big (but not Jupiter big), with an equatorial radius of 15,300 miles. Neptune is circled by six rings and has 14 moons, one of which is geologically active and blasting geysers into space. (Plumes are ideal for sampling; rather than building a lander, you can just fly a science spacecraft right through them.) A Neptunian day is short, at 16.11 hours long, but its years are a different story.

2. IN 2011, HUMANITY MARKED NEPTUNE'S "FIRST" BIRTHDAY.

It is impossible to see Neptune with the naked eye. Galileo first recorded its existence with his telescope, though he identified it as a star, misled by its slow orbit. In the 19th century, astronomers noticed an aberration in the orbit of Uranus, and Urbain Joseph Le Verrier, a French mathematician, went to work on the problem. With a pen and paper, he worked out not only the existence of a planet, but also its mass and position. In 1846, Johann Gottfried Galle made the observation at the request of Le Verrier, and sure enough, found a planet. A couple of weeks later, he also observed Triton, Neptune's largest moon.

It took 165 years for a full Neptunian year to elapse. That's why we celebrated Neptune's "first" birthday in 2011.

3. IT'S CALLED AN ICE GIANT … BUT IT DOESN'T HAVE MUCH ICE.

Hofstadter tells Mental Floss that until the Voyager 2 spacecraft visited Neptune and Uranus in the late 1980s, the two planets were thought to be small Jupiters. "It turns out they are fundamentally different than Jupiter," he says. "They are around two-thirds water by mass, and then they have some rock and an atmosphere of hydrogen and helium."

The "ice" in "ice giants" refers to their formation in the interstellar medium. "When modeling the formation of the solar system, things are more or less sorted into three categories: gas, rock, or ice," says Hofstadter. In interstellar space, helium or hydrogen will not exist as a solid or liquid, so they are the gases. They form planets like Jupiter. Silicates and irons, meanwhile, are solid, and exist as dust particles blown out from such things as supernovae. They form places like Earth. Then there are "in between" molecules, such as water, methane, or ammonia. Depending on the local temperatures and pressure, they might be water vapor or solid ice. Those are called—you guessed it—the ices.

"When planetary scientists found that, wow, Neptune and Uranus seem to be mostly stuff like water and methane, they called them 'ice giants,'" Hofstadter explains. But the name is misleading, because today there is very little ice in those planets. "When they formed, the water was probably coming in as ice," he says. "Now, however, it's hot enough in the interior that almost all of the water there is liquid."

Neptune's blue hue? That's due to the methane in its atmosphere.

4. IT HAS A SOLID CORE SURROUNDED BY AN OCEAN. THE REST IS A MYSTERY.

… but not liquid water like you find on Earth. The interior structures of Neptune and Uranus are among the biggest questions facing planetary scientists today. The conventional thinking is that there is a rocky core at each of their centers, surrounded by an extensive region of ocean. A hydrogen and helium atmosphere comprises the outer layer. "There's a lot of atmosphere to get through before you hit the ocean," says Hofstadter. "It is deep enough that it is under extremely high pressure and temperatures. It is probably a highly reactive ionic ocean." The water exists in what is called a supercritical state: "It doesn't behave in the same way that water in our oceans behave. It's probably conducting and has a lot of free electrons in it."

5. NEPTUNE'S FORMATION IS ONE OF THE GREAT CELESTIAL UNKNOWNS.

When planets form, solids first come together. When a solid ball gets big enough, it can gravitationally trap gas—and there's a lot more gas around than there is rock. Hydrogen is the most abundant thing in the universe. "Once you get a rocky core that's big enough to trap gas, a planet can grow very rapidly and can grow very big," says Hofstadter. In the inner solar system, where there was not as much gas, or ices were not solid, you got the terrestrial planets. In the outer solar system, where there was rock and solid ice, large cores formed quickly and started sucking up all the gas around them. That's how you get monster planets like Jupiter and Saturn.

How this relates to Neptune (and Uranus): A star, as it is forming, has a phase during which it has a tremendously strong stellar wind and effectively blows away all the gas. "If Jupiter and Saturn had been in an environment with an endless supply of gas, they would have grown big enough to eventually become stars," says Hofstadter. "But the idea is, the Sun kind of turned on and blew away all the gas, and Jupiter and Saturn had their growth cut off."

Neptune and Uranus have large cores big enough to trap gas. So the question is, why didn't they become like Jupiter and Saturn? "Jupiter and Saturn are 80 percent gas, by mass. Why are Uranus and Neptune something like 10 percent gas? Why didn't they trap more?"

The first theory involves luck. "The idea is, well, for Uranus and Neptune, their cores got big enough to trap gas precisely at the time when the Sun started blowing away all the gas. There wasn't enough, and they couldn't trap more," Hofstadter says. It's possible that could happen once or perhaps twice in a solar system's formation, explaining Uranus and Neptune. But the study of exoplanets have upended this thinking. "When you look around in our galaxy and see how many ice giants there are, it's hard to believe that every solar system out there was lucky enough to have planets forming large cores just as their stars started blowing away all the gas," he points out. "So this is a fundamental question: How do ice giants form? And we don't understand."

6. NEPTUNE'S RINGS ARE CLUMPY.

Unlike the rings of Saturn, the six Neptunian rings are thin, young, and dark. Their color is due to their composition: radiation-processed organic material. One of the rings features three thick, distinct clumps named Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. The clumps are something of a mystery: The laws of physics dictate that they should be spread out evenly, as you see at Uranus, but there they are, little lumps in space. (Before Voyager 2 visited, only the clumps were visible, and were called arcs, part of an incomplete ring.) The most likely cause for the ring irregularity is gravitational meddling by the moon Galatea.

7. MORE ABOUT THAT MOON WITH GEYSERS …

Triton, Neptune's largest moon, is thought to be something like Pluto: an object from the Kuiper Belt (the ring of icy bodies beyond Neptune). "It happened to be gravitationally captured by Neptune," says Hofstadter. "It is a fascinating object to study because it's a Kuiper Belt object, but it's also interesting because it is active. We see a lot of geology on Triton just like we see on Pluto. When Voyager flew by—in just a few minutes—it happened to see geysers spouting off."

When Triton was captured into orbit around Neptune—you can see it circling the planet in the video above—it caused all the native Neptunian satellites to be destroyed. They either impacted Neptune and were absorbed, or they were ejected from the Neptunian system.

8. IT HAS A "GREAT DARK SPOT."

Just as Jupiter has a Great Red Spot, Neptune has a Great Dark Spot. They are both anticyclonic storms, though while Jupiter's spot is centuries old, Neptune's spot is short lived. It seems to come and go. Notably, the Great Dark Spot even generated stunning white clouds over Neptune much in the way that cirrus clouds form from cyclones on Earth.

9. WE'VE BEEN THERE ONCE BUT WANT TO GO BACK.

Only one spacecraft has visited Neptune: Voyager 2, in 1989. The photo of Neptune at top was taken during that mission; in fact, it's likely the source of any image of Neptune you've ever seen. Pretty much everything scientists know about the world comes from that flyby, and from telescopic observation. The James Webb Space Telescope [PDF], which launches in 2019, will unlock new ice-giant science, including mapping cloud structures, observing auroras, and studying post-impact atmospheric dynamics.

Some things, however, such as a detailed atmospheric composition or a study of its satellites, can only be done by a spacecraft at the system. Planetary scientists are today developing flagship-class missions to visit both Neptune and Uranus. An ice-giants mission is considered a top priority of the planetary science community, after a Mars sample return mission and a Europa orbiter. Mars 2020, which launches in its namesake year, is a sample-caching rover (returning those samples to Earth awaits a future mission); meanwhile, the Europa Clipper was approved by NASA and is well into development. That puts Neptune and Uranus next in line. A mission to these planets would have to launch no later than 2034 lest their orbits place them beyond easy reach.

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