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Hubble’s new camera spots distant stardust

NASA released the first batch of images from the orbiting Hubble, repaired by shuttle astronauts in May, saying they showed the once-doomed telescope had been reinvented yet again.

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“The telescope was given an extreme makeover and now is significantly more powerful than ever, well-equipped to last into the next decade,” said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

The newly installed Cosmic Origins Spectrograph captured detailed data on a galaxy called Markarian 817 being pulled into a supermassive black hole, and an exploded star in the Large Magellanic Cloud that are both spewing matter into space.

“We believe that most of the matter in space is actually wispy filaments between the galaxies,” said James Green, of the University of Colorado.

Hubble is making these wisps visible for the first time.

The spectral imager detected oxygen, nitrogen and carbon.

Broken instruments replaced

“The elements of life are being produced in stars… but they are also being distributed through the cosmos,” Green said.

Another star has jets, material being blasted out “from what probably is going to be a planetary system by the time this thing settles down,” said Bob O’Connell of the University of Virginia.

In May, space shuttle astronauts repaired two shorted-out instruments and installed a new camera and spectrograph in the telescope.

“We are giddy with the quality of data that we have with this new telescope,” said Heidi Hammel, senior research scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

Hubble has survived several brushes with disaster.

Soon after it was launched in 1990, astronomers discovered to their panic that it was out of focus and shuttle astronauts had to install a fix in 1993.

Another servicing mission was scrapped after the 2003 accident that killed the entire crew of the space shuttle Columbia, and NASA considered just letting the telescope die.

Cash fears for space program

Astronomers protested strongly, but they are now being careful to justify Hubble’s continued expense at every opportunity.

“In all humility I truly believe that Hubble has fundamentally changed the course of modern astronomy and astrophysics,” said David Leckrone of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

On Tuesday, a presidential review panel said the US human spaceflight program was on an “unsustainable trajectory”, spending too much money.

The Human Space Flight Review Committee suggested using NASA funds to encourage commercial companies to get into the business of launching travelers to the International Space Station.

University of Alberta history professor Robert Smith estimated that $15 billion has been spent on the Hubble telescope.

“Astronomers now have to ensure that their projects are technically and scientifically feasible to get funding; they also have to assemble a political coalition to see their projects through,” he said.