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Bubble Nebula by Hubble
The Bubble Nebula, also known as NGC 7653, is an emission nebula located 8,000 light-years away in the constellation Cassiopeia. (Credit: NASA / ESA / Hubble Heritage Team)

It’s been 26 years since the Hubble Space Telescope was launched into orbit, but the Bubble Nebula picture unveiled to mark its birthday would make the great observatory feel like a kid again.

Anthropomorphizing inanimate objects is usually a bad idea: They hate that. But every April, the telescope’s science team releases an eye-opening picture as a birthday present. It’s not really for Hubble. It’s for its fans.

The telescope went into space aboard the shuttle Discovery on April 24, 1990, went through a mission-saving series of optical repairs in 1993, had its final servicing mission in 2009, and is continuing to send back jaw-dropping pictures of the universe.

Hubble has previously captured views of the Bubble Nebula, also known as NGC 7635. But this time, the science team knit together four images from the telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3 to show off the bubble in its entirety.

The nebula, which lies 8,000 light-years away in the constellation Cassiopeia, was first spotted by astronomer William Herschel in 1787. Since then, astronomers have learned that it’s a 10-light-year-wide shell of glowing gas, pushed outward from a star that’s 10 to 20 times as massive as the sun.

The gassy bubble is expanding at the rate of more than 60,000 mph, and the pressure against the surrounding interstellar medium is what shapes the nebula into a nearly perfect sphere.

Even as scientists celebrate Hubble’s anniversary, they’re getting ready for another blessed event: the launch of the bigger, more capable James Webb Telescope in October 2018. So that’ll make two birthdays to remember.

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