NASA Marks Hubble's 30th Birthday With Stunning Image of 'Cosmic Reef'

NASA has released a spectacular image of a star-forming region in a nearby galaxy to mark the the 30th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope's launch.

Nicknamed the "Cosmic Reef" because it resembles an underwater world, the latest Hubble image shows the giant red nebula NGC 2014 towering above its smaller blue companion NGC 2020, both of which are located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way around 160,000 light-years away.

Nebulae are vast interstellar clouds of dust and gas that can be formed after stars explode as supernovae at the end of their lifecycles. These structures are often regions where stars form, so they are sometimes referred to as "stellar nurseries."

In the middle of the image are numerous bright, newly formed stars, which are at least ten times more massive than our sun. These stars emit powerful radiation that causes the surrounding gas to glow in vivid colors.

The blue portions of NGC 2014 indicate the presence of oxygen gas heated to nearly 20,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Meanwhile, the red indicates the presence of nitrogen and hydrogen.

The blue nebula on the bottom left of the image is composed of material ejected from a single massive star, 200,000 times brighter than our sun.

Since it began operations thirty years ago, Hubble has provided us with a continuous stream of stunning images such as these, which have revolutionized our understanding of the universe.

"Hubble has given us stunning insights about the universe, from nearby planets to the farthest galaxies we have seen so far," Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., said in a statement.

"It was revolutionary to launch such a large telescope 30 years ago, and this astronomy powerhouse is still delivering revolutionary science today. Its spectacular images have captured the imagination for decades, and will continue to inspire humanity for years to come," he said.

A joint project of NASA and the European Space Agency, the telescope is capable of imaging the universe in a broad range of wavelengths, from ultraviolet to near-infrared light. Situated in orbit above the Earth, Hubble can capture crystal-clear images that are unaffected by our planet's atmosphere.

Hubble Space Telescope, cosmic reef
The "Cosmic Reef" image captured by the Hubble Space Telescope showing the giant red nebula (NGC 2014) and its smaller blue neighbor (NGC 2020.) NASA, ESA and STScI

Hubble was launched into orbit on April 24, 1990 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida aboard the space shuttle Discovery. Since then it has made numerous significant discoveries, including measuring the expansion rate of the universe and determining that black holes are common in galaxies.

In total, Hubble has made more than 1.4 million observations, with astronomers using this data to write more than 17,000 peer-reviewed scientific papers. But a big part of the telescope's success has been its ability to engage the general public with its dramatic images of the cosmos.

"I think you can make an argument, and I'm biased, that it's the greatest scientific instrument ever built," former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino, who was part of two missions to service the telescope, previously told Newsweek. "What it's shown us discovery-wise, taking us places that we can only dream about going, and also showing us the beauty of the universe."

While not the first space observatory to be launched, it is both one of the largest and most versatile. Furthermore, it is the only one designed so that it could be serviced by astronauts in space—a major factor in its longevity. In fact, astronauts conducted five space shuttle servicing missions between 1993 and 2009 in to carry out vital repairs and install the telescope with more advanced equipment.