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May 13, 2002

Hubble's new camera delivers breathtaking views of the universe

UCSC professor Garth Illingworth is deputy leader of the camera's science team

By Tim Stephens

The first views of the universe taken by the Hubble Space Telescope's new Advanced Camera for Surveys are stunning, even to astronomers who have been working on the camera for the past seven years. Professor of astronomy and astrophysics Garth Illingworth is deputy leader of the camera's science team.

Among the photos released by NASA last week were the one above of the "Tadpole," a view of a colliding galaxy, and the one below called "Cone Nebula." The Cone Nebula looks menacing, but is actually an innocuous pillar of gas and dust. Photos: NASA
"We had always advertised this camera as being able to do 10 times better than the old one, but it still amazed us to see the results," Illingworth said.

NASA released four demonstration pictures last week. Among the suite of "suitable-for-framing" images is a stunning view of a colliding galaxy, dubbed the "Tadpole," located 420 million light-years away.

While the galaxy itself is visually striking, what's in the background made an even bigger impression on Illingworth and other astronomers. An enormous number of distant galaxies speckle the darkness beyond the Tadpole, giving the image an appearance similar to the famous Hubble Deep Field taken in 1995.

The new image, however, was taken in one-twelfth the time it took for the original Hubble Deep Field.

"We were just stunned by the complexity and the depth we were seeing, and how quickly it went to that depth," Illingworth said.

The Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) was installed on Hubble by astronauts on a shuttle mission in March.

During five of the most challenging spacewalks ever attempted, the crew successfully upgraded the orbiting telescope with the new camera, a new power unit, new solar arrays, and an experimental cooling unit for an infrared camera. Hubble managers say the orbiting telescope has been operating superbly since the servicing mission.

"[This] marks the beginning of a new era of exploration with Hubble," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for space science at NASA headquarters, Washington.

The ACS provides dramatic increases in efficiency and sensitivity over its predecessor, the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2.

"The ACS is opening a wide new window onto the universe. These are among the best images of the distant universe humans have ever seen," said astronomer Holland Ford of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, lead scientist in the camera's development.

The camera is expected to surpass the sensitivity of the largest ground-based telescopes to eventually see the very faintest objects ever recorded. The camera delivers a panoramic crispness comparable to that of a wide-screen movie, containing 16 million picture elements (megapixels) per image. By comparison, digital photos from typical consumer cameras are 2 to 4 megapixels.

The first images captured by the new camera have demonstrated that the ACS will deliver deeper views of the universe than any other instrument for the foreseeable future, Illingworth said.

"We now have an opportunity to see the most distant galaxies ever detected, pushing back in time to within the first billion years of the evolution of the universe," he said. "This is a time astronomers refer to as the dark ages, when the first stars formed and the first galaxies began to assemble. We have very little information about this time, but now we can start to explore into the fringes of the dark ages."

The other pictures include a stunning collision between two spiral galaxies, dubbed "the Mice," that presage what might happen to our own Milky Way several billion years in the future when it collides with the neighboring galaxy in the constellation Andromeda.

Looking closer to home, ACS imaged the Cone Nebula, a craggy-looking mountaintop of cold gas and dust that is a cousin to Hubble's iconic "pillars of creation" in the Eagle Nebula, photographed in 1995.

Peering into a celestial maternity ward called the M17 Swan Nebula, the ACS revealed a watercolor fantasy-world tapestry of vivid colors and glowing ridges of gas. Embedded in this crucible of star creation are embryonic planetary systems.

The development and construction of the ACS was a joint effort of the science team, Ball Aerospace, and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "It was a team effort involving government, industry, and university researchers that worked extraordinarily well," Illingworth said.

Additional information and images are available online.

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