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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.

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. 

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Were You Meant to Be an Astronaut? Try Passing NASA's Project Mercury Intelligence Test
From left: Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, Gus Grissom, Christopher Craft of the Mercury Operations Division, Gordon Cooper, Scott Carpenter, John Glenn, and Alan Shepard.
From left: Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, Gus Grissom, Christopher Craft of the Mercury Operations Division, Gordon Cooper, Scott Carpenter, John Glenn, and Alan Shepard.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1958, NASA launched Project Mercury, its first manned space program. To have a manned space program, of course, it had to have astronauts. The men who would take part in the six Mercury flights were the first of their kind—in fact, the project even introduced the word "astronaut" as the term for American space explorers.

How did NASA choose the men for the team? Through a rigorous battery of tests, according to Popular Science, that measured their physical, psychological, and intellectual fitness for the job. The magazine recently recreated a small subset of those tests that you can take to see just how fit you might have been for the project.

The five tests Popular Science excerpts are only a fraction of what finalists had to endure. Out of 508 military pilots initially screened for inclusion, NASA hoped to find six astronauts who were the healthiest, smartest, most committed, and most psychologically stable men they could locate. After months of testing, they had such a hard time narrowing it down that they ended up choosing seven instead. Here’s how NASA describes just a small sliver of the process:

In addition to pressure suit tests, acceleration tests, vibration tests, heat tests, and loud noise tests, each candidate had to prove his physical endurance on treadmills, tilt tables, with his feet in ice water, and by blowing up balloons until exhausted. Continuous psychiatric interviews, the necessity of living with two psychologists throughout the week, and extensive self-examination through a battery of 13 psychological tests for personality and motivation, and another dozen different tests on intellectual functions and special aptitudes—these were all part of the week of truth.

In the end, seven were left: Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Wally Schirra, and Deke Slayton. Could you have been one of them? Well, you may not be able to test out your endurance in a pressure suit, but you can take a few of the psychological tests, including ones on spatial visualization, mechanical comprehension, hidden figures, progressive matrices, and analogies.

To test your skills, head over to our pals at Popular Science.

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Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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7 Giant Machines That Changed the World—And 1 That Might
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

From a 17-mile-long particle accelerator to a football-field–sized space observatory, here are seven massive machines that have made an equally huge impact on how we build, how we observe our universe, and how we lift rockets into space. We've also included a bonus machine: a technological marvel-to-be that may be just as influential once it's completed.

1. LARGE HADRON COLLIDER

Large Hadron Collider
Carlo Fachini, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator located at CERN outside of Geneva, Switzerland, is the largest machine in the world: It has a circumference of almost 17 miles and took around a decade to build. The tubes of the LHC are a vacuum; superconducting magnets guide and accelerate two high-energy particle beams, which are moving in opposite directions, to near-light-speed. When the beams collide, scientists use the data to find the answers to some of the most basic questions of physics and the laws that govern the universe we live in.

Since the LHC started up in 2008, scientists have made numerous groundbreaking discoveries, including finding the once-theoretical Higgs boson particle—a.k.a. the "God" particle—which helps give other particles mass. Scientists had been chasing the Higgs boson for five decades. The discovery illuminates the early development of the universe, including how particles gained mass after the Big Bang. Scientists are already working on the LHC's successor, which will be three times its size and seven times more powerful.

2. CRAWLER-TRANSPORTER ROCKET MOVERS

Built in 1965, NASA's crawler-transporters are two of the largest vehicles ever constructed: They weigh 2400 tons each and burn 150 gallons of diesel per mile. In contrast, the average semi truck gets roughly 6.5 miles per gallon. The vehicles' first job was to move Saturn V rockets—which took us to the moon and measured 35 stories tall when fully constructed—from the massive Vehicle Assembly Building (the largest single-room building in the world) to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. The 4.2-mile trip was a slow one; the transporters traveled at a rate of 1 mph to ensure the massive rockets didn't topple over. Without a vehicle to move rockets from the spot they were stacked to the launch pad, we never could have gotten off the ground, much less to the moon.

After our moon missions, the crawler-transporters were adapted to service the Space Shuttle program, and moved the shuttles from 1981 to 2003. Since the retirement of the orbiters, these long-serving machines are once again being repurposed to transport NASA's new Space Launch System (SLS), which, at 38 stories tall, will be the biggest rocket ever constructed when it's ready, hopefully in a few years (the timeline is in flux due to budgetary issues).

3. NATIONAL IGNITION FACILITY

National Ignition Facility (NIF) target chamber
Lawrence Livermore National Security, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Three football fields could fit inside the National Ignition Facility, which holds the largest, most energetic, and most precise laser in the world (it also has the distinction of being the world's largest optical instrument). NIF—which took about a decade to build and opened in 2009—is located at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California. Its lasers are used to create conditions not unlike those within the cores of stars and giant planets, which helps scientists to gain understanding about these areas of the universe. The NIF is also being used to pursue the goal of nuclear fusion. If we can crack the code for this reaction that powers stars, we'll achieve unlimited clean energy for our planet.

4. BERTHA THE TUNNEL BORER

When Seattle decided it needed a giant tunnel to replace an aging highway through the middle of the city, the city contracted with Hitachi Zosen Corporation to build the biggest tunnel boring machine in the world to do the job. The scope of Bertha's work had no precedent in modern-day digging, given the dense, abrasive glacial soil and bedrock it had to chew through.

In 2013, Bertha—named after Bertha Knight Landes, Seattle's first female mayor—was tasked with building a tunnel that would be big enough to carry four lanes of traffic (a two-lane, double-decker road). Bertha needed to carve through 1.7 miles of rock, and just 1000 feet in, the 57-foot, 6559-ton machine ran into a steel pipe casing that damaged it. Many predicted that Bertha was doomed, but after a massive, on-the-spot repair operation by Hitachi Zosen that took a year-and-a-half, the borer was up and running again.

In April 2017, Bertha completed its work, and engineers started the process of dismantling it; its parts will be used in future tunnel boring machines. Bertha set an example for what is possible in future urban tunnel work—but it's unlikely that tunnel boring machines will get much bigger than Bertha because of the sheer weight of the machine and the amount of soil it can move at once. Bertha's tunnel is scheduled to open in 2019.

5. INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION

international space station
NASA

The international space station is a highly efficient machine, equipped with instrumentation and life support equipment, that has kept humans alive in the inhospitable environment of low-Earth orbit since November 2, 2000. It's the biggest satellite orbiting the Earth made by humans. The major components were sent into space over a two-year period, but construction has slowly continued over the last decade, with astronauts adding the Columbus science laboratory and Japanese science module. The first module, Zarya, was just 41.2 feet by 13.5 feet; now, the ISS is 356 feet by 240 feet, which is slightly larger than a football field. The station currently has about 32,333 cubic feet of pressurized volume the crew can move about in. That's about the same area as a Boeing 747 (though much of the ISS's space is taken up by equipment). The U.S.'s solar panels are as large as eight basketball courts.

From the space station, scientists have made such important discoveries as what extended zero-G does to the human body, where cosmic rays come from, and how protein crystals can be used to treat cancer. Though NASA expects the most modern modules of the ISS to be usable well into the 2030s, by 2025 the agency may begin "transitioning" much of its ISS operations—and costs—to the private sector [PDF] with an eye on expanding the commercial potential of space.

6. LIGO GRAVITATIONAL WAVE DETECTOR

The Laser Inferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is actually made up of four different facilities—two laboratories and two detectors located 2000 miles apart, in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana. The detectors, which took about five years to build and were inaugurated in 1999, are identical L-shaped vacuum chambers that are about 2.5 miles long and operate in unison. The mission of these machines is to detect ripples in the fabric of spacetime known as gravitational waves. Predicted in 1915 by Einstein's theory of general relativity, gravitational waves were entirely theoretical until September 2015, when LIGO detected them for the first time. Not only did this provide further confirmation of general relativity, it opened up entirely new areas of research such as gravitational wave astronomy. The reason the two detectors are so far from each other is to reduce the possibility of false positives; both facilities must detect a potential gravitational wave before it is investigated.

7. ANTONOV AN-225 MRIYA PLANE

Antonov An-225 in Paramaribo
Andrew J. Muller, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

The Russians originally had a rival to the U.S. Space Shuttle program: a reusable winged spacecraft of their own called the Buran—and in the 1980s, they developed the AN-225 Mriya in order to transport it. With a wingspan the size of the Statue of Liberty, a 640-ton weight, six engines, and the ability to lift into the air nearly a half-million pounds, it's the longest and heaviest plane ever built. Mriya first flew in 1988, and since the Buran was mothballed in 1990 after just one flight (due to the breakup of the Soviet Union rather than the plane's capabilities), the AN-225 has only been used sparingly.

The monster plane has inspired new ideas. In 2017, Airspace Industry Corporation of China signed an agreement with Antonov, the AN-225's manufacturer, to built a fleet of aircraft based on the AN-225's design that would carry commercial satellites on their backs and launch them into space. Currently, virtually all satellites are launched from rockets. Meanwhile, Stratolaunch, a company overseen by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is building a plane that will be wider (but not longer) than Mriya. The giant plane will carry a launch vehicle headed for low-Earth orbit.

BONUS: 10,000-YEAR CLOCK

This forward-thinking project, funded by Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, focuses on reminding people about their long-term impact on the world. Instead of a traditional clock measuring hours, minutes, and seconds, the Clock of the Long Now measures times in years and centuries. The clock, which will be built inside a mountain on a plot of land in western Texas owned by Bezos, will tick once per year, with a century hand that advances just once every 100 years. The cuckoo on the clock will emerge just once per millennium. Construction began on the clock in early 2018. When this massive clock is completed—timeline unknown—it will be 500 feet high. What will be the impact of this one? Only the people of the 120th century will be able to answer that question.

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