Hubble mark 31st birthday with stunning image of star on ‘edge of destruction’

Nilima Marshall, PA Science Reporter
·2-min read

Astronomers have released a stunning new image of a giant star “on the edge of destruction” taken by the Hubble Space Telescope to celebrate its 31st birthday.

It features one of the brightest stars in the Milky Way galaxy, called AG Carinae, in what is described as “a tug-of-war between gravity and radiation to avoid self-destruction”.

The luminous object is surrounded by an expanding shell of gas and dust, known as a nebula, that is around five light-years wide, similar to the distance between Earth and its nearest star other than the sun, Alpha Centauri.

Hubble was sent into low Earth orbit on April 24 1990 to capture images and data of distant galaxies, planets and supermassive black holes deep within the universe.

It has yielded some 1.5 million observations of about 48,000 celestial objects, according to the European Space Agency (ESA) which operates the telescope with Nasa.

Wide-field view of AG Carinae
The region of the sky around the star AG Carinae, which is positioned in the centre of the image (ESA/Hubble, Digitised Sky Survey 2/PA)

More than 18,000 scientific papers have been published using data from the Hubble telescope.

However, the instrument has not been without its problems, suffering from the offset with blurred vision due to a flawed mirror.

Though it was still able to do some work in the early years, the issue was not corrected until a shuttle mission in 1993.

Each year, Hubble takes a new photo to share with the world to celebrate its birthday.

The milestone image for 2021 shows an object that belongs to a rare group of stars known as Luminous Blue Variable (LBV).

Hubble Space Telescope
The Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990 (Nasa/PA)

LBVs are, what ESA says, “ultra-bright, glamorous star that lives fast and dies young”.

Although they are the most massive and brightest stars known, LBVs live for only a few million years, compared to the estimated 10-billion-year lifetime of the sun.

AG Carinae, which is a few million years old and resides 20,000 light-years away from Earth, has an expected lifetime is between five and six million years.

It is in a constant battle to maintain stability, engaged in “an arm-wrestling contest between radiation pressure from within the star pushing outward and gravity pressing inward”.

The red material is glowing hydrogen gas mixed with nitrogen gas, while the features highlighted in blue are dust clumps illuminated by the star’s light.

The Hubble is expected to continue to operate until it is replaced by Nasa’s next-generation James Webb Space Telescope, which is due to launch on October 31 this year.