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For 15 years, the Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) has been churning out amazing and breathtaking images of our universe. But during the upcoming HST servicing mission, a new and improved version of Hubble’s main camera will replace the optical workhorse that has provided so many memorable and awe-inspiring images. WFPC2 was brought up on orbit to Hubble in December of 1993 to replace the original camera, outfitted with special optics to overcome the spherical aberration in Hubble’s main mirror. To honor the WFPC2, here are a few of the most memorable discoveries the camera has made.
Hubble Deep Field. Above is one of the most incredible images ever, the Hubble Deep Field. Over 10 consecutive days in December 1995, Hubble and the WFPC2 2 stared at a speck of sky no bigger than a grain of sand held at arm’s length. In that small patch of sky, more than 1,000 galaxies located billions of light-years away were revealed, each containing billions of stars. Our world and our galaxy suddenly seemed very small.
Pillars of Creation.
Imaged by the camera on April 1, 1995, the Eagle Nebula, 7,000 light-years away, is composed of dense, towering clusters of interstellar hydrogen, oxygen and sulfur, trillions of kilometers long. Emerging from these towers of cosmic material are stars being born.
“After we released the image during a press conference, CNN continued to cover the story live,” said Ed Weiler, acting assistant administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “People felt compelled to call in with their reactions to this one picture…Some called it the pillars of creation. This picture touched Americans in a way I have never seen an astronomical picture do.”
Comet collision with Jupiter. WFPC2 gave the world a rare, stunning view of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 plunging into Jupiter in 1994. The images revealed the event in great detail, including ripples expanding outward from the impact.
Determining the age and rate of expansion of our universe. Our universe formed from a colossal explosion known as the Big Bang, and has been stretching apart ever since. Using WFPC2 to observe stars that vary periodically in brightness, astronomers were able to calculate the pace of this expansion to an unprecedented degree of error of 10 percent. The camera also played a leading role in discovering that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, driven by a mysterious force called “dark energy.” Together, these findings led to the calculation that our universe is approximately 13.7 billion years old.
Most galaxies harbor huge black holes. Before Hubble, astronomers suspected, but had no proof, that supermassive black holes lurk deep in the bellies of galaxies. The Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2, together with spectroscopy data from Hubble, showed that most galaxies in the universe do indeed harbor monstrous black holes up to billions of times the mass of our sun.