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Hubble gives glimpse of 'pillar of creation'

This undated handout image provided by NASA, released Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2009, taken by the refurbished Hubble Space Telescope, shows a celestial object that looks like a delicate butterfly.

It is a dazzling view of stellar dust and gases billowing in the interstellar void, already described by NASA in biblical language as a "pillar of creation" picture.

The colossal plume rising in the Carina Nebula was among the images unveiled Wednesday for the first time since astronauts upgraded the Hubble Space Telescope for a final time this spring.

Researchers greeted the images giddily, saying that Hubble's final years will bring a rich harvest of new scientific insight.

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"The data here is just spectacular. These are very exciting images," said Harvey Richer, a University of British Columbia astronomer.

The images of the Carina Nebula show in spectacular fashion the cosmic clouds within which infant stars emerge.

Less obvious but equally stunning was the scale of those images. The cloud pillar in the Carina Nebula is three light-years long - nearly 30 trillion kilometres. Next to it, Dr. Richer said, our solar system would be just a small pinpoint in the picture.

The new images show galaxies sheared and distorted by gravitational pull, light rays bent by dark matter, and an unknown object - either a comet or an asteroid - crashing into Jupiter.

To Dr. Richer, the most exciting new image is a colourful shot of a myriad of red, yellow and blue shimmering stars in Omega Centauri.

Hubble captured in that shot a stellar formation born 12 billion years ago, just within two billion years of the Big Bang that created the universe.

The red stars in the image, Dr. Richer said, are colder giants that have burned up their core hydrogen and swollen to a hundred times their original size, our sun's fate in five billion years.

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For Dr. Richer, that picture gave a taste of his coming research: Hubble will devote 121 orbits next year to looking at a cluster of one million stars in the southern hemisphere, known as 47 Tucanae.

Dr. Richer is hoping Hubble will enable him to find evidence of planets among those ancient stars. The findings could help in uncovering whether life arose early in the universe.

"If planets formed very early in the history of the universe, when these star clusters formed … that would mean there's been a very long time for life to evolve," Dr. Richer said.

The images released yesterday were the first since May, when the crew of shuttle mission STS-125 overhauled Hubble for the final time, replacing gyroscopes and batteries, and installing new sensors and cameras. The repair will enable Hubble to keep operating until 2014, when its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is to be launched.

"We have a fully functioning, beautifully operating telescope today," said Hubble senior scientist Dave Leckrone of the Goddard Space Flight Center.

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About the Author
National reporter

Tu Thanh Ha is based in Toronto and writes frequently about judicial, political and security issues. He spent 12 years as a correspondent for the Globe and Mail in Montreal, reporting on Quebec politics, organized crime, terror suspects, space flights and native issues. More

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