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How Hubble Changed the Way We Picture Our Universe

Posted on Fri, April 24, 2020
  • by: Dr. Elizabeth A. Kessler, Stanford University
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During its thirty years of operation, the Hubble Space Telescope has changed how we see the cosmos. Its images, based on data returned by the telescope and carefully crafted through digital image processing, have expanded scientific understandings of everything from planets in our solar system to dark matter. But Hubble’s contributions go beyond science. Its views of planets, nebulae, galaxies, and star fields have shaped how we picture such celestial objects and our relationship to them, and it’s now commonplace to envision our universe in brilliant colors and high resolution. 

colorful star cluster

The Hubble Space Telescope’s 25th anniversary was marked by the release of this image of a star cluster known as Westerlund 2. 

Hubble images have served as models for images from other telescopes, both those produced by scientists at world-class research facilities and by amateur astronomers. They hang on the walls of science museums and art museums alike; they decorate calendars, coffee mugs, and clothes; and they inspire fantastic settings for numerous science fiction films and TV. The Hubble images encourage us to imagine a dynamic universe populated with immense galaxies, ephemeral nebulae, and glittering star fields that we can explore, all in vivid color with dramatic lighting and incredibly sharp details.

With its glowing columns of gas and dust that rise up against a brilliant blue background, the Hubble Space Telescope’s “Pillars of Creation,” a star-forming region within the Eagle Nebula, exemplifies the visual characteristics that the Hubble images have made familiar. Its name describes the formation of stars within the columns of gas and dust, but also has greater resonance. The oft-quoted words of astronomer Carl Sagan come to mind: “We are all made of star stuff.” 

pillars of gas

Photo of the Eagle Nebula taken by Hubble in 1995. Image credit: NASA, ESA, STScI, J. Hester and P. Scowen (Arizona State University)

The 1995 image of the Eagle Nebula helped to revive the Hubble Space Telescope’s reputation after its initial focusing problems. The picture, released a few months after astronauts repaired the telescope, very publicly demonstrated that the telescope would live up to expectations. It also made the visual potential of Hubble images powerfully evident. The public responded with great enthusiasm, and that enthusiasm encouraged the production of more Hubble images. In particular, it inspired a group of astronomers and image specialists at the Space Telescope Science Institute (a research facility in Baltimore, Maryland, that manages the telescope) to form the Hubble Heritage Project, an endeavor that released a new aesthetically compelling image almost every month between October 1998 and May 2016.

Although Hubble images are the product of the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st, they are also the inheritors of much older aesthetic traditions. The colors and composition of Pillars of Creation present the cosmos as an awe-inspiring celestial landscape. The yellowish-orange columns suggest a strange rock formation silhouetted against the sky, lit from above by an unseen sun. The resemblance to the landscape is a recurring trope in Hubble images, as seen, for example, in representations of the Cone Nebula, the Keyhole Nebula, and even the view of a star cluster Westerlund 2, which was described in a press release as “a fantasy landscape of pillars, ridges, and valleys.”  

  • nebula

    The Hubble Heritage Project, a group dedicated to developing visually attractive images, crafted this view of the Keyhole Nebula in 2000. Image credit: NASA/ESA, The Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI)

  • red pillar of gas

    The Cone Nebula image marked the successful installation of the Advanced Camera for Surveys in 2002. Image credit: NASA, H. Ford (JHU), G. Illingworth (UCSC/LO), M. Clampin (STScI), G. Hartig (STScI), the ACS Science Team and ESA

Remarkably, it’s not just any landscape, but depictions of the American West as popularized by 19th-century painters and photographers such as Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt, Carleton Watkins, and William Henry Jackson. Their paintings and photographs depicted newly explored landscapes—the Rocky Mountains, Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the American Southwest—for an eager audience, many of whom would never visit such places themselves. Even more importantly, the 19th century paintings and photographs emphasize the sublime aspects of the landscape, calling attention to the vast size and scale of mountains, cliffs, and rocky towers of the American West; to the powerful forces that shaped the landscape; and to the ways such landscapes dwarf humanity. 

  • painting

    Thomas Moran, Cliffs of the Upper Colorado River, Wyoming Territory, 1882. Many Hubble images resemble landscapes in the American West as painted by 19th -century artists such as Thomas Moran. Image credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum.

  • pillars of gas

    Hubble's Pillars of Creation image of Eagle Nebula. Image credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Landscapes of the American West and the aesthetics of the sublime have long inspired those who endeavored to depict space exploration. To point to only one example: Starting in the 1940s, space artist Chesley Bonestell repeatedly painted planets and space settlements that extended the 19th-century tradition to extraterrestrial landscapes. The Hubble images carry it still further. The combination of an orbiting telescope and digital image processing allow us to appreciate the sublimity of the universe,  but also imagine—if only through pictures—exploring distant nebulae, galaxies, and far-flung star-fields. 

  • The exploration of Mars; pre-space age interpretation-seven men with blue space suits and tanks resembling diving tanks climb on Martian rocks; two rockets, four small men and a dome in the valley below.

    Chesley Bonestell, The Exploration of Mars. The Martian landscape in Bonestell’s imagined view recalls the soaring cliffs and rock outcroppings of the American West. Image credit: National Air and Space Museum.

  • nebula

    Star-forming region NGC 3324, Hubble Heritage Project. In another image from the Hubble Heritage Project, the edge of a nebula suggests a horizon line against a blue sky. Although depicting clouds of gas and dust, it seems to promise a frontier that we might cross. Image credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)


Dr. Elizabeth A. Kessler teaches in the American Studies program at Stanford University. Her book, Picturing the Cosmos: Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime, was published in 2012.

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