U.Va. Astronomer, Chairman of Hubble Oversight Committee, Says New Galactic Images Are 'Spectacular'

September 10, 2009 – NASA unveiled striking new photos of space taken this summer by instruments on the newly refurbished Hubble Space Telescope during a press conference Wednesday at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story:

During the conference, scientists including Robert O'Connell, the J.D. Hamilton Professor of Astronomy in the University of Virginia's College of Arts & Sciences, discussed the astronomy now possible with Hubble's two new state-of-the-art cameras and other instruments. Astronauts installed the instruments and repaired some older ones during a $1 billion servicing mission in May.

O'Connell serves as chairman of the Scientific Oversight Committee for Hubble's new Wide Field Camera 3. The camera will help image a diverse range of objects and phenomena, from young and extremely distant galaxies, to much more nearby stellar systems, to objects within the Milky Way.

The Wide Field Camera 3 can span the electromagnetic spectrum from the ultraviolet, through visible/optical light, and into the near infrared. The camera already is providing the sharpest and clearest images of space since Hubble's launch in 1990, and will continue to do so for at least five years.

"We couldn't be happier about the quality of the data coming from the Wide Field Camera 3," O'Connell said. "It's spectacular. The camera is performing even a little better than we expected. It has boosted Hubble's performance in the important near-ultraviolet and near-infrared bands by factors of 10 to 30 times."

The pictures released Wednesday show the great potential of the new and repaired equipment on Hubble.

O'Connell said one of the most anticipated investigations, just now being started, is a very deep survey – involving multiple repeated exposures to be taken over hundreds of Hubble orbits – in search of the most distant galaxies. These are systems that formed very early in the history of the universe, about 500 million years after the Big Bang.

O'Connell and the other members of the Scientific Oversight Committee are working on a study of the history of star formation in nearby galaxies and on a separate look at how galaxies were evolving in the distant universe 6 billion to 10 billion years ago. They expect to have some data in about a month.

The Scientific Oversight Committee for Wide Field Camera 3 was formed in 1998 and includes 20 astronomers from the U.S., U.K., Germany, Switzerland and Australia. Its charge was to maximize the scientific performance of the camera, given existing technology. The committee participated in selecting the detectors, filters and other hardware elements for the camera, and reviewed design features and laboratory tests pertinent to science performance.

The camera was built by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center with technical support from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore and with the Ball Aerospace Corp. of Boulder, Colo., as a main contractor.

O'Connell's committee will complete its official responsibilities in November after a review of data from the extensive on-orbit verification tests that have been conducted since May. Hubble observations for the committee's scientific programs will continue into next summer.

"We are especially excited about the new data because the entire servicing mission for Hubble, including installation of Wide Field Camera 3, had been cancelled in the wake of the Columbia accident," O'Connell said.

Only after a special flight safety review was undertaken in 2006 did NASA re-authorize the long-planned mission to repair and upgrade the space telescope.

— By Fariss Samarrai