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Was Hubble a DeLorean in Another Life?

Sometimes it must seem like the Hubble Space Telescope is a time traveler.

Within hours of Hubble making headlines because it shut itself down due to a serious mechanical failure, mission scientists released a survey of galactic diversity based on new Hubble images.

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NGC 253, Sculptor Group galaxy, 13 million light-years away

—Image courtesy NASA, ESA, J. Dalcanton and B. Williams (University of Washington)

Using two of its powerful cameras, Hubble captured high-resolution views of 69 galaxies that lie 6.5 million to 13 million light-years away. This sounds pretty distant, but it’s actually right in our cosmic backyard.

The project—delightfully named the ACS Nearby Galaxy Survey Treasury, or ANGST, program—aims to use the new, detailed views of old stars in nearby galaxies like a fossil record.

More distant galaxies are younger galaxies to Earth-based observers, because the light had to travel for millions of years to reach us, so what we see now is how a galaxy looked in it’s early days.

The young/far galaxies are loaded with active star formation and are good models in general for figuring out how galaxies grow up.

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NGC 300, Sculptor Group galaxy, 7 million light-years away

—Image courtesy NASA, ESA, J. Dalcanton and B. Williams (University of Washington)

By comparing the closer, geriatric galaxies to their younger cousins, scientists hope to trace how various types of galaxies might have evolved, as well as possibly getting a clearer picture of stellar life cycles. [Yes, I know I'm supposed to be talking about planets here, but you gotta have stars for planets to form, right?]

But, you might ask, NASA says Hubble is broken, so how is it still releasing new images?

The seemingly odd timing of this survey is due to the fact that science is rarely ever immediate—and Hubble is no Canon point-and-shoot. It takes time to collect, send, process, and analyze each piece of information streaming in from the orbiter.

The diversity survey, for example, is based on images taken in 2006 by a camera on board Hubble that has been broken since 2007.

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NGC 3077, M81 Group galaxy, 12.5 million light-years away

—Image courtesy NASA, ESA, J. Dalcanton and B. Williams (University of Washington)

On average over its 18-year lifespan, Hubble has been collecting and beaming to Earth about 120 gigabytes of data each week, enough to fill just over 25 standard DVDs, and more than enough to overwhelm the folks whose jobs are to find meaning in the raw data.

This means there’s a huge amount of information filling astronomers’ coffers, just waiting for someone with a trained eye to spot something unusual, reveal connections, make interpretations, or simply find an eye-popping visual.

At a presser a few weeks back, mission officials were estimating that even after Hubble ends its days as a working observatory, its volumes of data will be providing us with scientific findings for decades.

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NGC 4163, dwarf irregular galaxy, 10 million light-years away

—Image courtesy NASA, ESA, J. Dalcanton and B. Williams (University of Washington)

Maybe NASA scientists can take a cue from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey program Galaxy Zoo, and put the legions of amateur astronomers to work sifting through Hubble’s legacy.

After all, Hubble already has a successor, the James Webb Space Telescope due for launch in 2013, so I’m betting NASA could use all the data-crunching help they can get!