Hubble's new camera captures unprecedented views of the deep universe

Tuesday, April 30th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The black of space is slashed with silvered streaks of stars as two fiery galaxies merge in a collision of giants. A massive pillar of dust glows in crimson in the glare of hot stars, and another nebula smolders in blues, pinks and reds from the light of stellar birth.

These views, never before seen in such detail, are among the first captured by a new camera on the Hubble Space Telescope, an instrument experts say may radically change what is known about the early and very distant universe.

The camera, called the Advanced Camera for Surveys, ``is opening a wide new window onto the universe,'' said Holland Ford of Johns Hopkins University, leader of a team that developed the new camera.

Speaking Tuesday at a news conference where the first four views from the ACS were released, Ford said the new camera increases by 10-fold the visual sharpness of the Hubble and gives the clearest pictures ever of galaxies forming in the very early universe.

He said the new camera will look back in time and distance some 13 billion light years, giving astronomers a glimpse of the few hundred million year period when stars and galaxies were beginning to form after the Big Bang.

Ford forecast that new images from the ACS can radically change some basic understanding about how and when the stars and galaxies first formed.

One view released Tuesday shows an object, identified as UGC 10214 and dubbed the ``Tadpole galaxy'' because of its shape, that has a long tail of stars and gas smeared across 280,000 light years of the heavens by the gravitation force of a merging compact, blue galaxy.

The same image, taken in a fraction of the time required by the old Hubble camera, captures the light of more than 3,000 galaxies. One such galaxy, seen as a dim red dot, is shown as it was when the universe was about 10 percent of its current age, said Ford.

``The light we see left that faint red galaxy when the universe was just 1 billion years old,'' he said.

The ACS was installed on the Hubble during a servicing mission to the orbiting space telescope in March. Space shuttle astronauts, in a series of spacewalks, also installed new power equipment, a guidance control wheel, and a mechanical cooler on the 12-year-old Hubble.

Following a weekslong checkout, engineers found ``the Hubble is back in business and works great,'' said Ed Weiler, the associate administrator for space science at NASA.

Weiler said that since Hubble was launched in April, 1990, the orbiting telescope has rewritten astronomy textbooks with new discoveries.

``It showed that some of our most closely held beliefs about the universe were plain wrong,'' said Weiler.

He said that Hubble's new, keener eye is expected to make even more discoveries.

An infrared camera which stopped working because it ran out of coolant in 1998 has been revived with a new ``refrigerator'' device that keeps the instrument at a minus 333 degrees F. Officials expect to release new images from that camera in June.

Weiler said that although Hubble was originally designed to last only 15 years, a series of servicing missions have kept the telescope working and it is now expected to last until 2010. After that, said Weiler, plans call for the telescope to be retrieved by the space shuttle, returned to Earth and eventually put on display in a Washington museum.

A new generation of space telescopes, even more sharp-eyed than the Hubble, is now being planned.