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Hubble observations are also helping mission managers pick the best object for New Horizons to check out after it flies past Pluto this year.

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Scientists using Hubble have also been able to track seasonal changes on planets. Hubble also gave people on the ground an amazing view of a comet impacting another planetary body when Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashed into Jupiter in The Hubble telescope took the first image of a planet in visible light. The large planet, called Fomalhaut b, is about three times the size of Jupiter.

Australia will help NASA go to the Moon and Mars

The telescope can also gather valuable data about a planet and its atmosphere as it travels behind its star. We're using cookies to improve your experience.

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Here are five important discoveries Hubble made possible in its quarter century orbiting Earth: 1. The precious hours for ERS would come directly from Sembach. Each successful proposal will not only pursue novel science with Webb but also develop new tools and techniques for using the telescope that all astronomers can subsequently employ. But even through the galaxy cluster—size magnifying glass of a gravitational lens, Hubble can only see these early galaxies as dim smudges reddened by cosmic expansion.

Adaptive Optics | ESO

Webb—custom-built to study these murky epochs—could use gravitational lensing to unveil these and even older galaxies in sufficient detail and number to pin down exactly how these ancient objects arose and first brought light into the universe. Somewhere in that region, Finkelstein says, Webb might spy anywhere between a few to perhaps 50 extremely ancient galaxies. The number will help reveal the efficiency of star formation in the early universe, and could forecast exactly how far back in cosmic time Webb will be able to see.

Despite its origins as a workhorse for studying faraway galaxies, Webb will also make breakthroughs nearer to home. One ERS program will stare into the hearts of neighboring nascent star systems to watch ices, organic molecules and other planetary building blocks dance around coalescing suns. Whereas these discoveries have offered broad information about planets in the Milky Way—sizes, masses and orbital periods—they have told us far less about climate, weather and habitability. Webb will not be able to snap actual pictures of alien Earths to see such details, but its exquisite optics could still help astronomers scan for Earth-like conditions on a handful of planets orbiting nearby stars.

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Unlike Kepler, which simply surveyed a single star-packed field of view for transits, Webb can zoom in on individual transiting worlds for deeper study. For their observations, Batalha and her team have more modest goals. And ultimately it could point the way toward what many planet hunters consider their holy grail: obtaining actual images of an Earth-like planet orbiting another star.

Taking a picture of a planet outside our solar system is a tall order; even the largest, brightest world would be almost imperceptibly faint in the glare of its parent star. It will, however, help pave the way for far more capable future planet-imaging observatories. But Webb does have this incredible [infrared] wavelength coverage and sensitivity.

We Have Now Reached The Limits Of The Hubble Space Telescope

Lee Billings is a senior editor at Scientific American. He covers space and physics.

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