Every year since it became operational, the Hubble Space Telescope has produced a bumper crop of astonishing views of the Universe.  From sharp snapshots of objects in the Solar System to long-exposure photographs of the most distant galaxies ever glimpsed, many of the images captured by the premier space-based observatory have been nothing short of awe-inspiring.  As 2016 nears its end, let’s take a look at a few of the most amazing Hubble pictures that have been released this year.

Swimming in the Sea of Space

Located in the general direction of the southern constellation Ara (“the Alter”) is the Stingray Nebula.  Most sources indicate that it lies about 18,000 light years away.  The evocative cloud of gas envelops a fast-evolving star (SAO 244567) at the center.  Since its discovery, the surface temperature of the star increased by 40,000 degrees Celsius, but recently it has begun to cool somewhat.  First identified in 1971, the Stingray is the youngest planetary nebula yet observed.

Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA

An Astronomer's Dream Come True

One of Hubble’s incredible powers is the ability to peer millions of light years into space to capture astronomical images of unsurpassed clarity.  Such is the case in this beautiful portrait of NGC 4394, a classic barred spiral galaxy approximately 55 million light years from Earth.  William Herschel, who first identified it in 1784, could only have dreamed of obtaining such a sharply detailed image of the celestial object.  Hubble allows modern astronomers to analyze NGC 4394’s revealing components and to understand the complex interactions among gravitational forces, super-heated gases, vigorous star-forming regions, and possible interactions with neighboring galaxies that have contributed to the galaxy’s majestic appearance.

Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA/Judy Schmidt

Crowning Jupiter

The Hubble team combined an optical image of Jupiter with an ultraviolet observation of its north pole to produce a picture unlike any seen before of the largest planet in the Solar System:  There atop the gas giant are its auroras, shimmering like an iridescent electromagnetic crown.  These days, of course, the Juno spacecraft is orbiting Jupiter on the most ambitious mission so far to study the enormous planet.  An important part of the mission is dedicated to gaining a better understanding of Jupiter’s super powerful magnetic field and its auroral phenomena.

Image credit: ESA, NASA

Cassiopeia's Bubble

Like many astronomical objects, NGC 7635 goes by several names.  Perhaps the most familiar and visually apt moniker is the Bubble Nebula.  It is another discovery of the estimable William Herschel, who first identified it in 1787; not surprisingly, the nebula has been an enticing target of study ever since.  Located in the constellation Cassiopeia, about 8,000 light years away, the Bubble is “inflated” by the stellar wind of SAO 20575, a very large and hot young star at the nebula’s center that causes the cloud of gas to glow brightly.  This image was captured by Hubble as part of the celebration of the telescope’s 26th year in space.

Image credit: ESA, NASA, Hubble Heritage Team

Flying on Fragile Wings

Last but not least in this selection of Hubble images released in 2016 is Hen 2-437, a planetary nebula located in the constellation Vulpecula.  First glimpsed by Rudolph Minkowski, in 1946, it seems almost to be gliding on delicate blue wings through the vastness of space.  Those beautiful bipolar structures were formed when a dying red giant star shrank to become a white dwarf and ejected huge quantities of gas and dust into the surrounding void.  Like so many lovely objects that have been imaged by Hubble and other telescopes, Hen 2-437’s evocative appearance results from timing and perspective.  We are fortunate to be in the right time and place to appreciate such awe-inspiring sights.

Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA/Judy Schmidt