In this special feature, we have invited top astronomers to handpick the Hubble Space Telescope image that has the most scientific relevance to them. The images they’ve chosen aren’t always the colourful glory shots that populate the countless “best of” galleries around the internet, but rather their impact comes in the scientific insights they reveal.
Tanya Hill, Museum Victoria
My all-time favourite astronomical object is the Orion Nebula – a beautiful and nearby cloud of gas that is actively forming stars. I was a high school student when I first saw the nebula through a small telescope and it gave me such a sense of achievement to manually point the telescope in the right direction and, after a fair bit of hunting, to finally track it down in the sky (there was no automatic ‘go-to’ button on that telescope).
Of course, what I saw on that long ago night was an amazingly delicate and wispy cloud of gas in black and white. One of the wonderful things that Hubble does is to reveal the colours of the universe. And this image of the Orion Nebula, is our best chance to imagine what it would look like if we could possibly go there and see it up-close.
So many of Hubble’s images have become iconic, and for me the joy is seeing its beautiful images bring science and art together in a way that engages the public. The entrance to my office, features an enormous copy of this image wallpapered on a wall 4m wide and 2.5m tall. I can tell you, it’s a lovely way to start each working day.
Michael Brown, Monash University
The impact of the fragments of Comet Shoemaker Levy 9 with Jupiter in July 1994 was the first time astronomers had advance warning of a planetary collision. Many of the world’s telescopes, including the recently repaired Hubble, turned their gaze onto the giant planet.
The comet crash was also my first professional experience of observational astronomy. From a frigid dome on Mount Stromlo, we hoped to see Jupiter’s moons reflect light from comet fragments crashing into the far side of Jupiter. Unfortunately we saw no flashes of light from Jupiter’s moons.
However, Hubble got an amazing and unexpected view. The impacts on the far side of Jupiter produced plumes that rose so far above Jupiter’s clouds that they briefly came into view from Earth.
As Jupiter rotated on its axis, enormous dark scars came into view. Each scar was the result of the impact of a comet fragment, and some of the scars were larger in diameter than our moon. For astronomers around the globe, it was a jaw dropping sight.