The James Webb Space Telescope is astronomy’s shiny new toy, but the Hubble Space Telescope isn’t old news — it’s at its scientific peak

The Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990 and has provided humanity with a front row seat to the world for more than three decades.

The Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990 and has given humanity a front row seat to the world for more than three decades.NASA

  • 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 skills, such as capturing visible and ultraviolet light, that Webb lacks.

  • The two telescopes will work together to study the world in even greater detail.

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

As the world gets excited about NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope, the aging Hubble continues to be an astronomical workhorse, providing important observations of the universe while Webb soaks up the limelight.

But as a pair, the telescopes are even more powerful than they are on their own. Together, the space telescopes will give astronomers a more comprehensive 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 Webb and Hubble enhance and complement each other’s unique capabilities,” said Jennifer Wiseman, senior program scientist for the space station. NASA’s Goddard Space Telescope Hubble. Flight Center, he told Insider.

“Hubble’s scientific comeback is expected to be strong, and even strengthened during this decade, as Webb and Hubble reveal the universe together.”

Hubble was developed by Discovery in 1990.

Hubble was developed by Discovery in 1990.

Hubble was developed by Discovery in 1990.NASA/IMAX

Ever since Galileo Galilei built his telescope in 1609, astronomers have pointed these instruments skyward. Astronomers have significantly developed these instruments over time, allowing them to look 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. By sitting high above the distortion of Earth’s atmosphere and away from light-polluted cities, observatories like Hubble provide, as NASA puts it, “an unobstructed view of the universe.”

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

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

Eagle_nebula_pillars

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 this expansion by pulling galaxies apart. Among his most iconic achievements is the Pillars of Creation image, taken in 1995, which shows newly formed stars shining in the Eagle Nebula.

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

A globular cluster NGC 6540 in the constellation Sagittarius, imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope.

A globular cluster NGC 6540 in the constellation Sagittarius, imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope.ESA/Hubble & NASA, R. Cohen

Both Webb and Hubble are space telescopes, but they differ in many ways. Hubble sees ultraviolet light, visible light and a tiny bit of infrared, while Webb will look mostly at the universe in the 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 that light has been shifted into 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 images 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.NASA/STScI; NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI

While Webb is billed as Hubble’s successor, the two space observatories will work together to reveal the universe together.

Wiseman points out how they will provide insights into how stars are born in cosmic dust clouds and dispersed throughout most galaxies. “Hubble, for example, can detect and analyze in detail the hot blue and ultraviolet light emitted by star-forming nebulae in nearby galaxies,” Wiseman said, adding: “This can be compared to the intensity of star formation. in the early universe. identified with Webb.”

The two space telescopes will also combine their gazes to peer into the atmospheres of other worlds, looking for signs that they might harbor life.

Astronomers typically look for the ingredients that sustain life on Earth — 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, our understanding of planets inside and outside our solar system will be greatly improved by the combination of Webb and Hubble,” Wiseman said, adding: “Signatures of water, methane and other atmospheric components will be detected using the combined spectroscopic capabilities of 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 an atmosphere of a world 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 capabilities in capturing visible and ultraviolet light still make it a sought-after tool for understanding the universe. “Hubble is actually at the peak of its scientific performance now,” Wiseman said. This is due to a team of NASA technical experts on the ground who monitor and quickly address any technical challenges that arise, he added.

“The number of proposals from scientists around the world who want to use Hubble has grown to over 1,000 per year, with only the top fraction selected for actual observations,” Wiseman said, adding, “Many of these complement the suggested remarks Webb. “

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