Top 10 Hubble Photos

Zoltan Levay, the imaging team leader at Space Telescope Science Institute, picks the most amazing celestial views.

NASA; ESA; F. PARESCE, INAF-IASF, BOLOGNA, ITALY; R. O’CONNELL, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA;
WIDE FIELD CAMERA 3 SCIENCE OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE

10Cosmic Fireworks Sparkling with energy, a cluster of young stars lights up a cavity in the roiling dust of the Tarantula Nebula. For Zoltan Levay, charged with bringing Hubble Space Telescope imagery to the public, the scene’s dynamism is irresistible. “Stars are being born, stars are dying,” he says. “There’s a vast amount of material churning.”

MOSAIC OF FOUR IMAGES NASA; ESA; HUBBLE HERITAGE TEAM, STSCI/AURA

9Star Power Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 looks through the Horsehead Nebula in a uniquely detailed infrared image. A classic target of astronomy, the nebula normally appears dark against a bright background, but Hubble penetrates the shroud of interstellar dust and gas. It’s a hint of what to expect from NASA’s planned infrared James Webb Space Telescope, Levay says.

NASA; ESA; HUBBLE HERITAGE TEAM, STSCI/AURA

8Galactic Waltz The interplay of their gravitational forces bends two spiral galaxies, collectively known as Arp 273, as they approach and prepare to merge 300 million light-years away. “It looks to me like they’re in a dance,” Levay says. “They’ll orbit around each other for eons and finally come together.”

NASA; ESA; T. M. BROWN, STSCI

7Near and Far In a deep-focus image, bright stars shine nearby in the Milky Way. Most of the other stars shown, including the cluster at bottom, are in the Andromeda galaxy. Billions of light-years beyond, entire galaxies glow. Levay: “It may not look like much, but what we see is nothing less than the entire sweep of the cosmos in a single image.”

NASA; ESA; HUBBLE SM4 ERO TEAM

6Celestial Wings Gas from a dying star resembles a butterfly, its lacy wings formed by the ejection of its outer layers. Unique and colorful planetary nebulae like NGC 6302 have provided some of Hubble’s most popular images. “They’re beautiful,” Levay says, “but some very complex dynamics and phenomena shape these things.”

NASA; ESA; HUBBLE HERITAGE TEAM, STSCI/AURA. J. HUGHES, RUTGERS UNIVERSITY

5Spectral Vision What looks like a ghostly ring suspended in the heavens is really a gas bubble 23 light-years across, the remnant of a supernova explosion first observed in our sky 400 years ago. “The simplicity of this image is haunting,” says Levay, “but deceptive.” Myriad forces ripple the bubble’s surface and distort its shape.

NASA; ESA; H. E. BOND, STSCI

4Echo of Light Over several months in 2002, Hubble captured a cosmic spectacle—a ragged balloon of dust that appeared to expand around the star V838 Monocerotis. In reality, an expanding blast of the star’s light was illuminating the dust cloud. Levay: “It’s rare to be able to watch something change this dramatically on a human timescale.”

MOSAIC OF SIX IMAGES. NASA; HUBBLE HERITAGE TEAM, STSCI/AURA

3Hats Off This spectacular image of the spiral Sombrero galaxy, seen almost edge on from Earth, holds a “large emotional connection” for Levay. He remembers fondly a college professor who recounted awestruck nights viewing the galaxy through an observatory telescope.

MOSAIC OF 32 IMAGES. HUBBLE IMAGE: NASA; ESA; N. SMITH, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, BERKELEY; HUBBLE HERITAGE TEAM, STSCI/AURA CERRO TOLOLO INTER-AMERICAN OBSERVATORY IMAGE: N. SMITH; NOAO/AURA/NSF

2Stellar Tumult Star birth and star death create cosmic havoc in a panorama of the Carina Nebula assembled from multiple Hubble images. “Visually it’s so rich,” Levay says, “and it took so much effort to put together. It has to be a favorite.” Data from a terrestrial telescope contributed colors keyed to elements.

MOSAIC OF TWO IMAGES. NASA; ESA; HUBBLE HERITAGE TEAM, STSCI/AURA. P. KNEZEK, WIYN

1Peerless Beauty This iconic Hubble image of the spiral galaxy NGC 1300 is suffused with detail—bright blue young stars, the dust lanes spiraling around the bright nucleus, distant galaxies shining through. “You can just lose yourself in it,” says Levay. Many have.