Still undergoing checkout, the upgraded Hubble Space Telescope already is exciting astronomers. Among its early discoveries: direct evidence of a supermassive black hole and a first-ever look into a ring of glowing gas around an exploding star.
As NASA scientists boasted Monday about the Hubble’s early achievements since its refurbishment in February, they also conceded that one of its major cameras is still out of focus although it is doing better than before.
Some of the new instruments are still being calibrated, but scientists have begun making observations with others.
Looking at the Orion Nebula with its new Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer, the Hubble unmasked a chaotic region where massive young stars violently eject material into the surrounding molecular cloud.
The region is a familiar one to Earth-based cameras, which saw the area as relatively dim and featureless. With the infrared camera, stars and glowing dust, heated by intense starlight, appear yellow-orange.
Rodger Thompson of the University of Arizona, the principal scientist for the instrument, said that by lifting the dusty veil over the region, the infrared camera enables scientists to see every stage “from star birth to star death.”
Another single exposure on the Hubble’s new imaging spectrograph discovered a black hole at least 300 million times the mass of our sun.
Peering into a galaxy 50 million light-years away, the spectrograph measured the increasing speed of a disk of gas - swirling trapped material - encircling the black hole.
Bruce E. Woodgate of the Goddard Space Flight Center, the principal scientist on an instrument called an imaging spectrograph, said it recorded a speed of 880,000 mph within 26 light-years of the galaxy’s center, where the black hole is. A light-year is the distance that light travels in a year at the rate of 186,282 miles a second.
Hubble also looked at a ring around Supernova 1987A, the closest star explosion in 400 years. The ring formed 30,000 years before the supernova exploded and is a record of the final stages of the star’s existence. Supernova 1987A is located 167,000 light-years away from Earth in the Large Magellanic Cloud.
The focusing problem with Camera 3 on the infrared instrument was brought on by the unexpected movement of a container of solid nitrogen. After launch, the nitrogen expanded more than expected as it warmed, moving the container and pushing the camera’s detectors out of position.
“It didn’t particularly affect the performance of cameras 1 and 2,” said David Leckrone, the Goddard Hubble Project Scientist. As the block of nitrogen ice evaporates slowly, scientists hope that the push against the detectors will ease to the point where the instrument can be focused.