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Amazing Hubble space telescope fact

There was one interesting factoid that I left out of my magazine story on the Hubble. (Sadly, we are not allowed to revise stories after they have already been published. This has been the bane of my existence.) I was up in Baltimore at the Space Telescope Science Institute, where the irreplaceable Mario Livio was explaining the Hubble pics to me. Mario knows everything about the universe, so far as I can tell. He certainly knows the Hubble. He was a terrific source for information as I prepared the story and he helped me with the fact-checking.

I asked him: How much of the sky has the Hubble seen? Like, what portion of the universe has been directly observed by the great space telescope?

He conferred with a colleague and they did a rough, back of the envelope calculation (actually Mario did it in his head, but you know what I mean).

So what's your best guess?

In 19 years...

What percentage of the heavens has Hubble observed?

Answer after the jump.

[Jeopardy music...]

Answer: 1 percent.

Now, Mario may extend and revise his calculation at some point. But the point is the same: Most of the universe has never been observed in Hubble-like detail.

Infinite wonders await discovery.


Here's a bit more of my mag story, for those who never clicked through:

Let's start with the Butterfly Nebula, technically known as Planetary Nebula NGC 6302. It's so delicate, so sublime. You can see it fluttering through space. It's such a gorgeous image that we will refrain from dwelling on the extreme color enhancement that NASA uses to make these photographs so seductive.

The Butterfly Nebula is the product of a star in its death throes. It's a star much like the one we see rising in the east every morning. This will happen to us. This is our future. The star is about 3,800 light-years away, in the constellation Scorpius. Those wings are actually hot streams of particles being ejected by the star into interstellar space. As the star starts to run out of hydrogen and helium fuel, its core contracts, and, simultaneously, the intense radiation of the star blows the outer layers into space. It's not an explosion but more of a spewing. Here, the star itself is unseen, obscured by dust. The dust and slower-moving gas form a torus, like a napkin ring, which forces the spew to be conical rather than spherical.

Our knowledge about star mechanics comes largely from models, equations, number-crunching. But this Hubble image of the butterfly lets the models spring to life. Before the rise of scientific astronomy, stars were boring. No one knew that a star and our sun were the same thing. This ancient universe was a two-dimensional backdrop for human actions, like the painted sets in "The Wizard of Oz." And yet the butterfly tells us the truth: The universe is wild. The universe evolves, and change is the norm. There's something of a cosmic ecosystem out there -- the cosmosphere, if you wish. And the death of a star is cosmic fertilizer.

If you go back to the primordial universe, you find only the simplest elements, primarily hydrogen and helium. The heavier stuff, such as carbon and nitrogen, is cooked up inside stars. The Butterfly Nebula is a freeze frame of the seeding of the universe with the material for future stars, planets and life. The universe, to be chemically interesting, and to give rise to life, has to have stars. And stars have to die. Carl Sagan was right: We are star stuff. Life as we know it is constructed around four of the five most common elements in the universe: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. Only the inert element helium is left out of the recipe (unless you inhale it, which can make you the life of the party). Life is opportunistic and pragmatic: It uses the most mundane materials butterflying through space.

By Joel Achenbach  |  December 5, 2009; 10:25 AM ET
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: What those Hubble images are telling us
Next: David Finkel makes Times 10 Best list


Many good writers like to revise even after publication. Thanks for sharing!

How many eyes on the sky do we have? I've attended NASA lectures and been surprised to find out how many major telescopes we have out already that just don't do the hubble-like pictures.

Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | December 5, 2009 10:40 AM | Report abuse

Actually, I'm surprised that it would be as high as one percent in 19 years. I tend to think of the universe as boundless.

Actually, when you factor in the time element it would be, wouldn't it? (I defer to the science-abled on this one.)

Posted by: MsJS | December 5, 2009 11:18 AM | Report abuse

It is boundless, just not infinite. Its expansion and our practical observations are both bound by the speed of light (right?).

Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | December 5, 2009 11:40 AM | Report abuse


Internet killed the TV star

Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | December 5, 2009 11:43 AM | Report abuse

Going out on a bit of a limb here to say this:

Hubble images invoke in me the same intense feeling of awe, tenderness, and utter joy tinged with humility that I have when I receive communion.

We are stardust
We are golden
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.

Thick floppy luscious high caloric flakes....

Posted by: CollegeQuaParkian1 | December 5, 2009 11:43 AM | Report abuse

Most authors (Henry James and Evelyn Waugh among them) revised published works for new editions or when they were anthologized; a distinguished precedent for Joel Achenbach.

Posted by: Yoki | December 5, 2009 11:59 AM | Report abuse

Weather Report.

Big fat snow flakes here near the shores of the Chesapeake.

TBG just left for home after a Girls' Night Out (not a Girls Gone Wild), following dinner and a hilarious concert at the Ram's Head.

Unfortunately, I cannot stay in my jammies all day basking in front of the fire because yesterday afternoon, after I locked the door to leave for the grocery, I realized I had locked myself out.

Hilarity did not ensue.

Naturally, I never made it to the store, and now I'm completely out of coffee (and firewood). A true emergency!

The weather has dissuaded me from attending The Messiah at the National Cathedral.

I'm turning into a true Merliner.

Posted by: rickoshea1 | December 5, 2009 12:11 PM | Report abuse

For a little while this morning, I had the distinct pleasure of telling the local TV radar image that it was WRONG!!!! since I could clearly see the lovely flakes falling outside instead of rain.

Nothing quite like walking to the post office with snow in your hair and woodsmoke in the air to put a spring in my step and a smile on my face.

It seemed the perfect time to put the Xmas tree up, as well. :-))))

Posted by: Scottynuke | December 5, 2009 12:31 PM | Report abuse

That article about TV and internet is incidentally almost a textbook example of how to frame a debate favorable to certain interests, while omitting other ways of looking at an issue. The article is not so biased as to be useless because at the bottom it does get into some interesting stuff about the different ad contents from Hulu.

First, there are not "two methods," of TV delivery, there is cable, satellite, broadcast, and TV DVD rentals, and there is donation / subscription TV too, and hybrid subscription / ad based revenue models also. And now ad-revenue-only, EXCEPTING INTERNET ACCESS FEES, on the internet, to add to the multiplicity.

Here's a different issue; a refresher on ASCAP and YouTube

Posted by: Jumper1 | December 5, 2009 12:32 PM | Report abuse

I agree, Jumper. I was thinking how the movie industry in fact is bigger those days despite videotape/dvd rentals/sales.

Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | December 5, 2009 12:45 PM | Report abuse

I was also thinking about how has gotten me watching content I wouldn't otherwise tune in to watch-- like the dvd trade created markets for niche movies not available everywhere, and also as a form of recycling TV content.

Hulu itself advertises its variety very well.

Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | December 5, 2009 12:49 PM | Report abuse

Good afternoon, all.

The Christmas tree is up and decorated. Since we did the outside decorations yesterday, that leaves just the Snow Village to put up this afternoon. I hope the Geekdottir will come to assist Mr. T in that endeavor, I'd rather not participate.

Then...Christmas may come!

Gotta go now and read Joel's article, the one I haven't had time to look at.

Just rain here. A little snow in the high country, but that's all. I did read in the paper this morning that we are moving into a full El Nino in the Pacific, which means cool and wet weather for the southeastern US.

Posted by: slyness | December 5, 2009 12:57 PM | Report abuse

One Degree Fahrenheit Walk

Thin snow on crisp leaves
Sun glows through blue-framed trees
White ice leafs the lake


Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | December 5, 2009 1:08 PM | Report abuse

What's with the waaaay off-topic comments? Ain't this about Hubble today?

Posted by: trh123 | December 5, 2009 1:11 PM | Report abuse

Do the beings that live in other galaxies talk about their weather as much as humanity does?

Must go find sustenance other than cookies.

Posted by: MsJS | December 5, 2009 1:15 PM | Report abuse

"sustenance other than cookies" - speaking of other planets. Though of course there are other foods, and quite tasty, really aren't cookies sufficient unto themselves?

I like Joel's story very much. One percent of the Universe actually seems like a vast, vast amount to me, considering the Universe's size. Endless wonders indeed.

I had a colleague once who often didn't read draft opinions until after they'd been handed down. Once she thought one could have been improved and didn't understand why we wouldn't withdraw the opinion to make her suggested corrections. There's an area where post-publication revision is rare indeed.

Posted by: Ivansmom | December 5, 2009 1:29 PM | Report abuse

trh123, we go off-topic here at the drop of a hat, or especially of a snowflake. Feel free to talk about the Hubble if you like. Welcome!

Cold, frosty and sunny here. Christmas tree has been up and decorated for a few days. My Christmas shopping is done, such as it is. Still crocheting a pineapple motif doily for my sister.

Posted by: seasea1 | December 5, 2009 1:30 PM | Report abuse

It's always rainy in Philadelphia, at least it is today.

What? Mudge had a mouse sitting in his lap last night?

Off the the Post Office and warehouse store shopping.

I did 3 major application software upgrades last week, spread among 14 servers. Overtime: 0. I know there are some people frantically testing this weekend for a new location go-live next week (the cause of 2 upgrades) and I didn't volunteer to help. Guilt: 0.

I could get used to this.

Posted by: -dbG- | December 5, 2009 1:38 PM | Report abuse

Mudge's a ghostwriter for Stuart Little, dbG.

Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | December 5, 2009 1:41 PM | Report abuse

seasea... I hope your sister doesn't read the boodle! I'd hate to have her surprise gift ruined.

Had a great Day of Boodle Women yesterday. Lunch with CqP was wonderful... meatballs and fabulous conversation with a last-minute lunch companion.

Dinner and show with rickoshea/Maggie O'D was also great. We saw Paul & Storm and Jonathan Coulton at the Rams Head in Annapolis. MUCH hilarity ensued. Maggie had no idea what she was in for; I was glad to see her enjoying herself.

The only thing missing was our planned meetup with yellojkt and Mrs. jkt. They gave up their dinner and concert in favor of a visit with their son in Florida. Imagine that.

The snow today is lovely. Dr G called me around 11 this morning to tell me "it's snowing like he11 outside" while I was looking at drizzle at Maggie's house.

The ride home quickly became snowy, but it looked nothing like it does here at home until I was about a mile away. It was a funny, almost completely visible line of demarcation... little snow then BIG SNOW.

I imagine RD's yard looks like mine, since he's a little more westward. We have a little more than 2 inches right now.

But I got to the Safeway for lots of milk before the hoarders got there.

Posted by: -TBG- | December 5, 2009 1:43 PM | Report abuse

Falling back out of the sky with the snow. There's a lot of things I'd like to revise, not just things I've written. But then I wouldn't be who and where I am today, right?

laloomis, typos and whatnot aside (hey...happens to the best of us), looks like you came barreling out of the chute angling for a fight yesterday. You and I both know the problems inherent in your DL/TW posts, the liberties taken within them, and how and where the scenarios compare and contrast. But allow me to digress one minute...

Quick story. Becomes relevant later. When T1 and T2 were just small, a boy pushed T2 around the schoolyard. T1 was a mere babe himself, and did the only thing he could think of...he gave T2 a pretty decent shove and said 'That's my sister. No one pushes her around but me." At that point, T2 had had just about enough, and hauled off and clobbered T1 (the last to have touched her). He came home with a shiner.

Back at the looks like when you threw a couple jabs yesterday, you were hoping for the same type of response and reaction (perhaps to manufacture cause for contacting the ombudsman?).

As you know from my posts here, the apples didn't fall far from the tree. Make no mistake about it...that's *my* Mudge, and I don't like anyone shadowboxing two inches from his face but me. Got it?

Now, taking potshots at the first person who crosses a radar screen is childish (I know...I see it most mornings). If a child had acted this way, I'd have said 'if you need time alone to adjust your attitude Young Lady, you can go hang out in your room until you feel better.' But we're not children, so I'll just say....while some may find it entertaining to be the bully on the playground, those people would be wise to not underestimate the kid over on the swingset...she may seem to be a bit of a bookworm with a penchant for girly shoes, but she's full of surprises.

Now, what's on your mind? We can start over. I'm handing out mulligans today.

Posted by: LostInThought | December 5, 2009 1:47 PM | Report abuse

Joel, is that 1% of the entire universe, or 1% of what the Hubble's instruments can gather? If it's the latter, then I think that might constitute only a max of 4% of the Universe, right (since we can't directly observe things like gravity, dark energy, etc.). Oy, my head's swimming again.

Speaking of which, I always keep an eye on the quiet girl on the playground swings. She's pretty savvy, and is pretty tough around the dodge ball circle, too.


Posted by: -bc- | December 5, 2009 2:00 PM | Report abuse

TBG, sounds like a wonderful day you and other Boodlers had - and despite Maggie's key malfunction! No, the doily is kind of an extra - I probably won't even wrap it when I send it.

Posted by: seasea1 | December 5, 2009 2:03 PM | Report abuse

I really had to faire le course (italics implied) this morning; it took three times as long as it normally would, due to conditions of roads (bad) and a bunch of people who have forgotten how to drive in deep cold snow (worse). But, I'm all stocked-up and ready to hunker if necessary.

Sadly, it looks as though I am going to have to bow out of #2's family birthday dinner; her Dad and Aunt are close enough to her to make it in spite of the weather. I'm feeling a bit bereft.

Time to bake something.

Posted by: Yoki | December 5, 2009 2:14 PM | Report abuse

I suspect it's 1% of the max res possible "slices" or parts of the 360 degree x 360 degree field. Which shows we need an expression similar to "360" that includes the whole cosmic sphere as seen from the single observer.

Posted by: Jumper1 | December 5, 2009 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Ya know that second, amended forecast that said So. Md. was only gonna get rain, that the snow would pass us to the north?

They lied.

Posted by: Curmudgeon5 | December 5, 2009 2:33 PM | Report abuse

Oh, LiT - I do *heart* you for your 1:47 post.

And, BTW, he's *my* Mudgekins, too. Won't fight about it, tho. Without implying anything rude, I suspect that there's enuf of him to go around.

*Backing out now*

Posted by: -ftb- | December 5, 2009 2:36 PM | Report abuse

bc brings up a good point.

We may be viewing the 3D and time elements via Hubble, but the universe contains additional dimensions we don't yet know how to photograph.

Wonder if it snows in those dimensions...

Posted by: MsJS | December 5, 2009 2:38 PM | Report abuse

Aw, Yoki -- deep (yet navigable) condolences. Yes, I think baking sounds like the right thing to do. And, of course, the eating thereof.

Wish you were close enough to BPH with us. So sorry I missed you the last time.

Posted by: -ftb- | December 5, 2009 2:38 PM | Report abuse

Mudge: The weather forecaster folk didn't lie. They just goofed, as is their wont.

Hope the un-rain is pretty to watch anyway.

Ivansmom: In a higher dimensional plateau cookies are totally sufficient. In 3D-Land one's physicality does occasionally yell for something else. Mine does anyway.

Posted by: MsJS | December 5, 2009 2:43 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: Curmudgeon5 | December 5, 2009 2:52 PM | Report abuse

Wow -- there's another new kit.

*wondering why Joel seems to have too much time on his hands*

*sorta like us . . . . *

Posted by: -ftb- | December 5, 2009 3:00 PM | Report abuse

So Hubble changed our views and understanding of our universe by looking at only ONE percent! Confirms my feeling that the older I get the less I know. Imagine what we WILL know when we can see say TEN percent. Or 50%. In archeology we have literally barely scratched the surface. The same is true if cosmology. We really don't know anything yet. And, if we don't destroy ourselves, we're in for some really mind-blowing discoveries. I wonder if the next 100 years can top the past 100 in discoveries and changes. It'll be hard to top Hubble.

Posted by: ctenwith | December 5, 2009 7:54 PM | Report abuse

Fine article! Took a lot, a lot of work, I'm sure. Kudos.

Tom L.

Posted by: Tom_L | December 6, 2009 1:45 PM | Report abuse

I really enjoyed this article, and it makes me really wonder what's really out there. I mean, if we've only explored one percent of the entire universe, you never know what could be watching us from ships far from our realm of understanding of our universe.

Who knows; maybe something like the Death Star is out there, just waiting to blow us up. ;)

Posted by: cbalefan | December 8, 2009 4:22 PM | Report abuse

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