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Hubble, which is about the size of a large school bus, has helped scientists estimate the age of the known universe, and test the laws of physics. The light arriving at Earth from the farthest objects in the cosmos provides a view of the early universe. The deeper Hubble “sees” into space, the further back in time it goes. Here are four important ways Hubble has helped scientists.
One of the most significant of Hubble’s many achievements is narrowing the age of the known universe to about 13.8 billion years. In one of its most recent milestones, astronomers from NASA and the European Space Agency found the most distant star ever discovered. The hot blue star existed only 4.4 billion years after the Big Bang, which is considered the birth of the known universe. The star became bright enough to be visible for Hubble thanks to a process called gravitational lensing, in which it was magnified by a cluster of galaxies closer to Earth.
Another important finding from the Hubble telescope is the identification of new galaxies. Based on current data, there are an estimated 100 billion galaxies in the universe. But astronomers believe that number could double as telescope technology improves. In one remarkable milestone, in 1995, scientists trained Hubble on what appeared to be an empty patch of the cosmos. The resulting “deep field” image surprised observers by revealing more than 3,000 galaxies not previously detected.
Hubble was responsible for helping scientists identify four of the five moons orbiting the dwarf planet Pluto. In 2005, using Hubble to gaze at Pluto, astronomers found two new moons orbiting the distant planet. The moons were named Nix and Hydra. Hubble spotted Hydra in 2011 and Styx in 2012. Data from Hubble also helped guide the New Horizons probe, which sent back photos of Pluto and the largest of its five moons, Charon, when it flew by in 2015.
All of Hubble’s accomplishments have been remarkable, but perhaps its crowning achievement is that it has helped prove the laws of physics. In particular, Hubble has shown that Einstein’s general theory of relativity, articulated in 1915, holds true throughout the visible universe. Einstein’s general theory of relativity describes how massive objects warp space, creating what is felt on earth as gravity. One of Einstein’s assumptions was that all of space exists as four-dimensional space-time. Thanks to Hubble and other high-powered telescopes, this phenomenon identified what are known as “Einstein rings.” An example of this from a composite photo created in 2014 shows the gravitationally-lensed galaxy SDP.81 warping around an intervening lensing galaxy to form a ring.
Einstein also predicted the existence of black holes. Black holes are places where gravity has become so extreme that not even light can escape its force. Hubble enabled astronomers to definitively confirm the existence of black holes. According to the Hubble website, “there are so many black holes in the universe that it is impossible to count them all.” But as Einstein himself once observed:
Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.