Twenty-six years ago Sunday, the Hubble Space Telescope launched aboard the Discovery space shuttle, zooming into space to provide us with an "unobstructed view of the universe."
At launch, Hubble carried a Wide Field/Planetary Camera (WF/PC), Goddard High Resolution Spectograph (GHRS), Faint Object Camera (FOC), Faint Object Spectograph (FOS), and High Speed Photometer (HSP). But scientists noticed that initial photographs were rather blurry, prompting a 1993 service mission that included a record five back-to-back spacewalks. That mission was successful and soon "began returning sharp and spectacular images," according to NASA.
Subsequent missions have improved Hubble's photography skills even more—a 1997 update allowed it to detect infrared light from deep-space objects and take detailed photos of celestial objects, for example. Now, the Hubble image galleryincludes dozens and dozens of mind-boggling photos that are so spectacular that you might question whether they are actually real. The Hubble archive now holdsmore than 100TB of data, and Hubble science data processing generates about 10TB of new data each year.
Hubble races around Earth at about 17,000 mph, finishing one complete spin in 97 minutes. It sends back information that lets scientists observe the most distant stars and galaxies as well as the planets in our solar system. But it also provides the average space fan with a peek "above the distortion of the atmosphere, [and] far, far above rain clouds and light pollution." It's worth your time to peruse the full Hubble gallery, but for a quick fix, here are 15 images that caught our eye.