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Hubble Telescope, Hubble Heritage, and the Eagle Nebula

This wide-field image of the Eagle Nebula was taken at the National Science Foundation's 0.9-meter telescope on Kitt Peak with the NOAO Mosaic CCD camera. It shows the areas seen in greater detail with Hubble's Wide-Field Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) in 1995 and Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) in 2005.

Photo Credit: T.A. Rector (University of Alaska, NRAO/AUI/NSF and NOAO/AURA/NSF) and B.A. Wolpa (NOAO/AURA/NSF)

The Eagle Nebula has been a well photographed image of professional and amateur astronomers. For over a decade, the Hubble image of the Eagle Nebula pillars has been a poster child to the beauty and splendor that are Hubble images as well as an icon to the Hubble telescope itself. In fact, the ethereal composition of the 1995 Eagle Nebula image, taken with the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2), is one of the many reasons that the Heritage Project came to be.

2005 ACS image of the Eagle Nebula (left) and 1995 WFPC2 image of the Eagle Nebula (top).

Click on images to enlarge or for more information. Images are roughly to scale with the ACS field being slightly larger than the WFPC2 field of view. The 2005 Eagle nebula consisted of two ACS pointings mosaicked together.


Credits: 2005 image: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA); 1995 image: NASA, ESA, STScI, J. Hester and P. Scowen (Arizona State University).

The 1995 image of the Eagle Nebula, with its classic chevron shape reminiscent of the WFPC2 detector onboard Hubble was a composite of hydrogen, oxygen, and sulfur filters. This new image of the Eagle Nebula looks vastly different than the 1995 image, and rightly so. This image is of a different column of gas in a different part of the nebula. It is composed of two pointings of the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) in blue, green, and infrared light, as well as emission from hydrogen and oxygen. (The ACS detector does not have a sulfur emission filter.)

The following is an excerpt from the May/June 1999 StarDate Online issue.
Printed with permission of the author.

Image is Everything

by Keith Noll (Principle Investigator for the Hubble Heritage Project)

"My non-astronomer friends and relatives take pride in the fact that my work is connected to Hubble Space Telescope. After all, Hubble has come to symbolize America's technological prowess in a way once reserved for rocket scientists and Moon walkers. But exactly what I do is something of a mystery to folks.

Even so, I was not surprised or confused in December 1995 when I was asked if I "...had anything to do with that image." Ordinarily, this would not be enough information for me to go on. But in this case I didn't need to ask "what image?" I knew right away. The Eagle Nebula image, released the month before, had made its way onto Dan Rather's desk and the covers of countless newspapers and magazines. I had worked on the team of scientists that maintained the camera used to make the image, but that was a tenuous connection and I had to shake my head no. I hadn't worked on that image. I started to explain the pillars and the evidence for starbirth in the nebula, but I could sense the disappointment. I'm sure my relatives were wondering again whether I really ever did an honest day's work.

I found myself pondering the incident. What was the significance of instantly knowing what "that image" was? Few, if any, of the many other Hubble images released week after week compare with the looming dark clouds silhouetted against a glowing background of wispy gas. The image captured the fancy of so many people that it didn't need an explanation. The image inspired a sense of awe even in those uninterested in the mysteries of stellar evolution.

How many other images with as much impact would Hubble produce in its lifetime? I looked at Hubble's greatest hits: nebulae, spiral galaxies, planets, star clusters, gaseous nebulae. After five years in orbit, Hubble had produced far fewer than could be expected.

There's a reason for this. Time on Hubble is a precious commodity. Each year astronomers propose many times more projects for Hubble than there is time to complete them. To fit in as many projects as possible, objects often are imaged in just one or two filters, too few to make striking three-color images like the Eagle.

To overcome the barriers, I proposed a program that would give priority to producing the best possible images from Hubble. We would search the archive for hidden gems and plan new observations of familiar objects. We would produce one new image a month. We would give astronomers space to tell their stories and the public the opportunity to help select new observations. Together with colleagues Anne Kinney and Howard Bond, I approached then-director Bob Williams with our vision. He said yes and the Hubble Heritage Project was born."