Since the 1920s, our understanding of the universe has greatly expanded. Edwin Hubble, the man who the famous Hubble Space Telescope was named after, helped to shatter the illusion that ours was the only galaxy in the universe with his observations of what would later be called the Andromeda galaxy.
With the James Webb Space Telescope finally launching and reaching its final cosmic docking spot in Earth’s L2 Lagrange point, we have an entirely new era of astronomy to look forward to, as once the telescope’s instruments are fully ready, it boasts the ability to peer back in time to the first luminous glows erupted after the Big Bang.
But that doesn’t mean that observatories like the Hubble Space Telescope will be out of the job, as even 32 years after the telescope’s launch, it is still being used to do groundbreaking scientific work.
Today we’re looking at the 10 most breathtaking images ever taken in the known universe.
10. Cosmic Cows
What is a cosmic cow?
No, we haven’t launched some poor hapless bovine into space, at least not yet, but rather, the term refers to an extremely bright form of supernovae. The first of these cow-like flashes of light was discovered in 2018 thanks to the efforts of astronomers operating two different telescopes, the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory and the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array.
The newly discovered celestial explosion was dubbed AT2018cow and the name just sort of stuck, becoming a catchall for any supernovae which match its unique description.
Cow-like supernovae are very short-lived and AT2018cow was 100 times more luminous than a typical supernova, emitting brilliant ultraviolet and blue light. These newly discovered explosions also make up about 0.1 percent of all observed cosmic blasts in the night sky.
And, at the start of this year, another cow-like event was discovered in the Spektrum-Roetgen-Gamma (SRG) space telescope’s data. This one being 200 times as bright as the original cosmic bovine.
According to Caltech astronomer Yuhan Yao, these events are more than likely the result of a collapsing star giving birth to a black hole or neutron star with a powerful magnetic field.
9. Henize 2-10 Stellar Nursery
Black holes are typically depicted as silent monsters, lurking in the black of space waiting to gobble up unsuspecting worlds and stars. Yet, without them, we would likely not be here. For one, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way binds our galaxy together, making our very existence possible.
However, what was discovered by the Hubble Telescope in a dwarf starburst galaxy 34 million light-years from us is perhaps proof that black holes assist in the formation of new stars.
Henize 2-10 has been the source of some debate since the discovery of what appears to be a massive black hole at the galaxy’s core, but the data suggesting that the object at the core could also suggest a supernova remnant. However, in these stunning recent images from Hubble, we see an outflow of gas coming from the object, leading directly to a stellar nursery.
If this object is indeed a black hole, then it will prove that black holes play a pivotal role in new star formation.
8. N44 Nebula
Located within the Large Magellanic Cloud, the N44 nebula as it was captured by the Hubble Space Telescope is absolutely stunning to behold, but more important are the cosmic phenomena which contribute to its awe-inspiring beauty.
The titular super bubble spans nearly 250 light-years, and currently, there’s no one explanation for why N44 has a massive hole in it, but stellar winds coming from massive stars and a supernova remnant have been offered as potential explanations.
7. Centaurus A Radio Galaxy
The Centaurus A Radio Galaxy might be the fifth brightest galaxy visible in the Earth’s night sky, but it’s also one of the most heavily studied objects in all of astronomy.
This particular image, which shows Centaurus A’s supermassive black hole’s powerful relativistic jets in all of their terrifying glory, is a composite of three different images captured by three separate instruments.
Each instrument operates in different wavelengths of the light spectrum. The orange segments of the image are from LABOCA on APEX, the blue portions are from x-ray data captured by the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and everything else was captured using the MPG/ESO telescope located in La Silla, Chile.
6. Intersecting Galaxies
Hubble has had an incredible run since its debut in 1990.
It is said that one day, the Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxy will collide and merge together (and some data suggests that that process has already started, but that’s neither here nor there).
Speaking of Andromeda, the constellation not the galaxy. This image represents ARP 273, two colliding galaxies some 300 million light-years from our humble little solar system.
While some places describe this interaction as having created what looks like a beautiful rose or flower formation, others describe the galaxy making up the “stem” of the flower as though it’s making a harrowing kamikaze dive into the other spiral galaxy.
The gravitational forces at play here are actively distorting both galaxies into their current shape, offering us a preview of sorts for what might happen when the Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxy are further along with their merger.
5. Star Cluster R136
Located within the Tarantula Nebula which itself is located within the Large Magellanic Cloud, star cluster R136 is a sight to behold.
This sector of the nebula features dozens upon dozens of newborn blue stars. These are some of the most massive stars in the entire universe.
This particular image was captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, through a partnership between NASA and ESA astronomers who were studying the Tarantula Nebula using Hubble’s spectrograph instrument.
Among these glowing blue stars, which are located 170,000 light-years from us, are 9 heavyweight stars with masses 100 times than that of our sun, Sol.
4. V838 Monocerotis
V838 Monocerotis is a variable star and surrounding it is a structure of interstellar dust. Hubble was able to capture this incredible image after V838 Monocerotis brightened by an extreme amount at the start of 2002.
For a brief moment in time (cosmically speaking, of course), the variable star was 600,000 times brighter than Sol. The brightening of this star lasted from January to April of 2002, and the cause for this flare is still a mystery. But, as a result, we have this stunning image of what’s called a “light echo” from the star’s brightening.
According to NASA, light from V838 Mon “propagates outward. Each new observation of the light echo reveals a new unique “thin-section” through the interstellar dust around the star.” In other words, as that light travels to us, we see the star’s light reflected on the interstellar gas that surrounds the star, even after the star has quieted down.
However, V838 Monocerotis is still one of the brightest stars in all the Milky Way.
3. Pillars of Creation
Located some 7,000 light-years from the Earth, the Eagle Nebula is also home to one of the most famous images ever taken by Hubble, the Pillars of Creation.
Like the twisted and writhing hand of a dead god, the Pillars of Creation is composed of three trails of beautiful multicolored dust and gas that stretch on for four to five light-years.
The Pillars are composed of nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and sulfur, but the most incredible thing about this formation is the fact that it’s home to a bunch of newly formed stars.
Unfortunately, the light from those newborn stars is also eroding the structure.
The structure was originally photographed by Hubble in 1995 and it’s been photographed two more times since then. The ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory photographed the structure in 2011, and after that, Hubble took another crack at it to celebrate the space observatory’s 25th anniversary.
2. Ring Nebula
The Ring Nebula sits 2,000 light-years from the Earth, and it’s a hint at the haunting future that awaits our own sun someday billions of years into the future. When stars like our own finally die, they don’t explode with the fury of a supernova.
They just aren’t large enough for that.
All of these features are present in this stunning image taken by Hubble in 1998. Originally, it was thought that the Ring Nebula was shaped exactly how we see it, but in recent years it’s been revealed through careful analysis of the planetary nebula that the blue regions (which are composed of helium, hydrogen, and oxygen) are actually shaped more like a football that’s intersecting with the red colored donut-shaped nitrogen and sulfur gasses. If were we to observe the nebula from a different perspective, it might look more like someone had spiked a football right through the reddish gasses.
1. M87 Supermassive Black Hole
Of course, no list of the greatest astronomy images ever taken (or in this case, generated) would ever be complete without the first image ever taken of a black hole.
M87 (or Messier 87) is a supermassive black hole resting at the center of a supergiant elliptical galaxy. The galaxy sits within the constellation Virgo and features a unique view at a single relativistic jet coming from one end of the galaxy.
The relativistic jet is moving so fast that it creates an illusion when we observe it from the Earth, making it appear to be moving 4 to 6 times the speed of light.
The first image of the black hole was made in 2019 by the Event Horizon Telescope which is a collaborative effort made by multiple radio observatories around the globe. Essentially, the EHT has linked 9 observatories that function as an Earth-sized Interferometer.
Since that first image from 2019, the EHT team has been studying M87 in even greater detail. Just last year, they released another image of the supermassive black hole showing how the stellar beast’s magnetic field disrupts the material in the accretion disk. The EHT team has since announced that it will be focusing its network of observatories on Sagittarius-A, the supermassive black hole that rests at the center of the Milky Way, which has never been directly imaged before.