Exploring the Expanse: 30 Years of Hubble Discoveries
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Exploring the Expanse: 30 Years of Hubble Discoveries

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Exploring the Expanse Hubble Discoveries

Exploring the Expanse: 30 Years of Hubble Discoveries

View the full-size version of the infographic by clicking here.

We’ve been fascinated by space for centuries, but telescopes truly opened our eyes to what lies beyond our frontiers.

For 30 years, the Hubble Space Telescope has been our companion in helping us understand outer space, paving the way for many important scientific discoveries in the process.

A Window to the Universe

Hubble launched on Apr 24, 1990 and has been in our orbit ever since. However, it had something of a shaky start. Due to an error in its primary mirror, it returned many wobbly and blurry images—until a servicing mission in December 1993 fixed the issue.

Today’s incredible map was created by Nadieh Bremer of Visual Cinnamon, for the scientific journal Physics Today. It incorporates over 550,000 scientific observations, to show the diverse objects captured by Hubble between 1990-2019.

Certain constellations have been included to help place these findings, many of which are also visible to the naked eye. Here are the main color-coded categories found on the map:

  • Yellow: Star/ Stellar cluster
    Example: V838 Monocerotis, which includes a red star and a light echo.
  • Red: Galaxy/ Clusters of galaxies
    Example: Spiral galaxy M81, half the size of the Milky Way.
  • Green: Interstellar medium (ISM)
    Example: Eagle Nebula, a majestic spire of cosmic dust and gas, resembling pillars and spanning 4-5 light years.
  • Blue: Solar System
    Example: Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, a high-pressure storm in the planet’s atmosphere.
  • Pink: Calibration/Unidentified (e.g. Hubble Deep Field surveys)
    Example: Ultra Deep Field, which captured a view of 10,000 galaxies over 11 days—some which date back to the early billion years of the universe.

NASA considers the Hubble telescope the “most significant advance in astronomy since Galileo’s telescope” and not without good reason—its total observations top 1.3 million.

Hubble Observations, by Category

The journey doesn’t end there, either. Bremer also looked at the frequency of Hubble observations that occurred within each of these categories, ranging from 1,000-20,000.

Hubble Observation by Category

Source: Physics Today

Each category encompasses multiple distinctive descriptions. For example, galaxies can be broken down further into whether they are spiral, nuclear, elliptical-shaped and much more.

Hubble’s Growing Legacy

The images sent back by Hubble over these three decades are not just for aesthetic purposes. The telescope is also responsible for immense contributions to the astronomy field: close to 13,000 scientific papers have used Hubble as a source to date.

The biggest scientific breakthrough thus far? The realization that our universe is expanding at an accelerating rate—thanks to a force called dark energy.

Hubble really did open up the whole universe to us in a way that nothing else did.

—Colleen Hartman, Former Deputy Center Director, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

It’s clear that Hubble already has an impressive legacy, and it’s not expected to be retired until at least the year 2025. Soon, it will be joining forces with the new James Webb Space Telescope, to be launched in March 2021. For the next generation of space enthusiasts, their eyes to the skies may well be the Webb instead.

For the true data viz nerds among us, here is an in-depth blog post detailing the sky map’s creation from scratch.

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Misc

All the Contents of the Universe, in One Graphic

We explore the ultimate frontier: the composition of the entire known universe, some of which are still being investigated today.

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The Composition of the Universe

All the Contents of the Universe, in One Graphic

Scientists agree that the universe consists of three distinct parts: everyday visible (or measurable) matter, and two theoretical components called dark matter and dark energy.

These last two are theoretical because they have yet to be directly measured—but even without a full understanding of these mysterious pieces to the puzzle, scientists can infer that the universe’s composition can be broken down as follows:

ComponentValue    
Dark energy68%
Dark matter27%
Free hydrogen and helium4%
Stars0.5%
Neutrinos0.3%
Heavy elements0.03%

Let’s look at each component in more detail.

Dark Energy

Dark energy is the theoretical substance that counteracts gravity and causes the rapid expansion of the universe. It is the largest part of the universe’s composition, permeating every corner of the cosmos and dictating how it behaves and how it will eventually end.

Dark Matter

Dark matter, on the other hand, has a restrictive force that works closely alongside gravity. It is a sort of “cosmic cement” responsible for holding the universe together. Despite avoiding direct measurement and remaining a mystery, scientists believe it makes up the second largest component of the universe.

Free Hydrogen and Helium

Free hydrogen and helium are elements that are free-floating in space. Despite being the lightest and most abundant elements in the universe, they make up roughly 4% of its total composition.

Stars, Neutrinos, and Heavy Elements

All other hydrogen and helium particles that are not free-floating in space exist in stars.

Stars are one of the most populous things we can see when we look up at the night sky, but they make up less than one percent—roughly 0.5%—of the cosmos.

Neutrinos are subatomic particles that are similar to electrons, but they are nearly weightless and carry no electrical charge. Although they erupt out of every nuclear reaction, they account for roughly 0.3% of the universe.

Heavy elements are all other elements aside from hydrogen and helium.

Elements form in a process called nucleosynthesis, which takes places within stars throughout their lifetimes and during their explosive deaths. Almost everything we see in our material universe is made up of these heavy elements, yet they make up the smallest portion of the universe: a measly 0.03%.

How Do We Measure the Universe?

In 2009, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched a space observatory called Planck to study the properties of the universe as a whole.

Its main task was to measure the afterglow of the explosive Big Bang that originated the universe 13.8 billion years ago. This afterglow is a special type of radiation called cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR).

Temperature can tell scientists much about what exists in outer space. When investigating the “microwave sky”, researchers look for fluctuations (called anisotropy) in the temperature of CMBR. Instruments like Planck help reveal the extent of irregularities in CMBR’s temperature, and inform us of different components that make up the universe.

You can see below how the clarity of CMBR changes over time with multiple space missions and more sophisticated instrumentation.
CMBR Instruments

What Else is Out There?

Scientists are still working to understand the properties that make up dark energy and dark matter.

NASA is currently planning a 2027 launch of the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, an infrared telescope that will hopefully help us in measuring the effects of dark energy and dark matter for the first time.

As for what’s beyond the universe? Scientists aren’t sure.

There are hypotheses that there may be a larger “super universe” that contains us, or we may be a part of one “island” universe set apart from other island multiverses. Unfortunately we aren’t able to measure anything that far yet. Unravelling the mysteries of the deep cosmos, at least for now, remains a local endeavor.

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Technology

Every Mission to Mars in One Visualization

This graphic shows a timeline of every mission to Mars since 1960, highlighting which ones have been successful and which ones haven’t.

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Timeline: A Historical Look at Every Mission to Mars

Within our Solar System, Mars is one of the most similar planets to Earth—both have rocky landscapes, solid outer crusts, and cores made of molten rock.

Because of its similarities to Earth and proximity, humanity has been fascinated by Mars for centuries. In fact, it’s one of the most explored objects in our Solar System.

But just how many missions to Mars have we embarked on, and which of these journeys have been successful? This graphic by Jonathan Letourneau shows a timeline of every mission to Mars since 1960 using NASA’s historical data.

A Timeline of Mars Explorations

According to a historical log from NASA, there have been 48 missions to Mars over the last 60 years. Here’s a breakdown of each mission, and whether or not they were successful:

#LaunchNameCountryResult
11960Korabl 4USSR (flyby)Failure
21960Korabl 5USSR (flyby)Failure
31962Korabl 11USSR (flyby)Failure
41962Mars 1USSR (flyby)Failure
51962Korabl 13USSR (flyby)Failure
61964Mariner 3US (flyby)Failure
71964Mariner 4US (flyby)Success
81964Zond 2USSR (flyby)Failure
91969Mars 1969AUSSRFailure
101969Mars 1969BUSSRFailure
111969Mariner 6US (flyby)Success
121969Mariner 7US (flyby)Success
131971Mariner 8USFailure
141971Kosmos 419USSRFailure
151971Mars 2 Orbiter/LanderUSSRFailure
161971Mars 3 Orbiter/LanderUSSRSuccess/Failure
171971Mariner 9USSuccess
181973Mars 4USSRFailure
191973Mars 5USSRSuccess
201973Mars 6 Orbiter/LanderUSSRSuccess/Failure
211973Mars 7 LanderUSSRFailure
221975Viking 1 Orbiter/LanderUSSuccess
231975Viking 2 Orbiter/LanderUSSuccess
241988Phobos 1 OrbiterUSSRFailure
251988Phobos 2 Orbiter/LanderUSSRFailure
261992Mars ObserverUSFailure
271996Mars Global SurveyorUSSuccess
281996Mars 96RussiaFailure
291996Mars PathfinderUSSuccess
301998NozomiJapanFailure
311998Mars Climate OrbiterUSFailure
321999Mars Polar LanderUSFailure
331999Deep Space 2 Probes (2)USFailure
342001Mars OdysseyUSSuccess
352003Mars Express Orbiter/Beagle 2 LanderESASuccess/Failure
362003Mars Exploration Rover - SpiritUSSuccess
372003Mars Exploration Rover - OpportunityUSSuccess
382005Mars Reconnaissance OrbiterUSSuccess
392007Phoenix Mars LanderUSSuccess
402011Mars Science LaboratoryUSSuccess
412011Phobos-Grunt/Yinghuo-1Russia/ChinaFailure
422013Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutionUSSuccess
432013Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM)IndiaSuccess
442016ExoMars Orbiter/Schiaparelli EDL Demo LanderESA/RussiaSuccess/Failure
452018Mars InSight LanderUSSuccess
462020Hope OrbiterUAESuccess
472020Tianwen-1 Orbiter/Zhurong RoverChinaSuccess
482020Mars 2020 Perseverance RoverUSSuccess

The first mission to Mars was attempted by the Soviets in 1960, with the launch of Korabl 4, also known as Mars 1960A.

As the table above shows, the voyage was unsuccessful. The spacecraft made it 120 km into the air, but its third-stage pumps didn’t generate enough momentum for it to stay in Earth’s orbit.

For the next few years, several more unsuccessful Mars missions were attempted by the USSR and then NASA. Then, in 1964, history was made when NASA launched the Mariner 4 and completed the first-ever successful trip to Mars.

The Mariner 4 didn’t actually land on the planet, but the spacecraft flew by Mars and was able to capture photos, which gave us an up-close glimpse at the planet’s rocky surface.

Then on July 20, 1976, NASA made history again when its spacecraft called Viking 1 touched down on Mars’ surface, making it the first space agency to complete a successful Mars landing. Viking 1 captured panoramic images of the planet’s terrain, and also enabled scientists to monitor the planet’s weather.

Vacation to Mars, Anyone?

To date, all Mars landings have been done without crews, but NASA is planning to send humans to Mars by the late 2030s.

And it’s not just government agencies that are planning missions to Mars—a number of private companies are getting involved, too. Elon Musk’s aerospace company SpaceX has a long-term plan to build an entire city on Mars.

Two other aerospace startups, Impulse and Relativity, also announced an unmanned joint mission to Mars in July 2022, with hopes it could be ready as soon as 2024.

As more players are added to the mix, the pressure is on to be the first company or agency to truly make it to Mars. If (or when) we reach that point, what’s next is anyone’s guess.

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