NASA's Hubble Space Telescope is back in action after its most recent upgrade, with a spectacular array of new images showing off the telescope's new capabilities.
The first images — a closely guarded secret until today — were of galaxy NGC 6217. The picture was taken with NASA's newly refurbished Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS).
This is "the day many of us have all been waiting for to celebrate Hubble's new beginning," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Hubble also snapped pictures of a densely packed star cluster, an eerie "pillar of creation," and a "butterfly" nebula.
Scientists also released spectroscopic observations that slice across billions of light-years to probe the cosmic-web structure of the universe and map the distribution of elements that are fundamental to life as we know it.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., who has provided key support for Hubble and NASA in Congress, unveiled the images at NASA Headquarters. She was given the honorary title "Godmother of Hubble."
"I fought for the Hubble repair mission because Hubble is the people's telescope," said Mikulski, chairwoman of the Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee that funds NASA.
Hubble's new instruments, including the Wide Field Camera 3 a new super-sensitive spectrograph, were installed on the 19-year-old telescope by shuttle astronauts during a 13-day service mission in May. The mission also revived two instruments — Hubble's main ACS and a versatile imaging spectrograph — that were never designed to be fixed in space.
The new instruments are more sensitive to light and, therefore, will improve Hubble's observing efficiency significantly. It is able to complete observations in a fraction of the time that was needed with prior generations of Hubble instruments.
The WFC3 was actually used to take a picture of Jupiter's new black spot — thought to have been caused by a comet collision — back in July, but the camera wasn't yet fully calibrated then.
Despite a few bumps in the three-month checkout, Hubble's systems and instruments are all up and running now.
NASA's new administrator Charlie Bolden was also on hand to congratulate the scientists and astronauts on Hubble's new lease on life. Bolden was one of the astronauts on the shuttle mission that deployed Hubble in 1990.
"Hubble has a special place in my heart," Bolden said. Through Hubble's past and future observations, "our view of the universe and our place within it will never be the same," he added.