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
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
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
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