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Hubble's hit parade

After an awkward infancy, the Hubble Space Telescope has turned into a teenage idol: At the age of 17, the 12-ton telescope has racked up a hit parade that would put even "American Idol" winner Jordin Sparks to shame. So is there one picture that ranks as Hubble's biggest hit?

This 1995 photo shows the Pillars
of Creation in the Eagle Nebula.

To my mind, Hubble's "Pillars of Creation" is the highest highlight: Like 1968's "Earthrise" picture from Apollo 8, and 1990's "Pale Blue Dot" picture from Voyager 1, the space telescope's 1995 picture of the Eagle Nebula's starbirth regions reminds us how small and precious our own celestial neighborhood is. Seen on the scale of the Pillars, our entire solar system would be just one barely imaginable speck inside a fingerlet of dust.

So you'd think the iconic picture of the Pillars must be the most sought-after view from Hubble, right? At least that's what I assumed. Well, it turns out I was wrong. Here's the scoop on Hubble's hit parade, and an advance peek at the space telescope's coming attractions:

Over the years, we've put together a series of slide shows that recap the greatest hits from Hubble, as well as the Hubble Ultra Deep Field and other views of the farthest frontiers. The Space Telescope Science Institute's HubbleSite has its own gallery of greatest hits - and according to Hubble spokesman Ray Villard, there's a code to the way the pictures are arranged.

The leftmost picture in the gallery's top row represents the most recently released image from the Hubble team, Villard told me. The image in the same position of the third row is also a recent release, as is the leftmost image of the fifth row, and so on. If you exclude those images, the all-time most popular images line up from one row to the other.

Thus, the top number on the hit parade is actually a montage of greatest hits from Hubble's first eight years. If you had to pick one winner to take the People's Choice award, you'd go to the next picture on the list. And that brings you to what is arguably Hubble's single most popular astronomical subject: a supernova remnant known as SN1987A.

A Hubble photo released in
February shows SN1987A as a colorful "triple ring."

The stellar explosion was first spotted in 1987, three years before Hubble's launch. Its evolution has been chronicled throughout Hubble's operating life - and in fact, the top-10 list includes an image released this year as well as a classic view from 1995. The 1995 view also appears in the eighth-anniversary montage. This video compilation of imagery from 1995 to 2003 shows how the supernova has been changing literally before our eyes.

You could certainly dispute SN1987A's status on the top of the Hubble heap: The European Space Agency's Hubble Web site, for example, doesn't include even one image of the supernova in its own Hall of Fame - and you'd be hard-pressed to find the supernova in its "Top 100" roundup.

But that's what picking your favorites is all about: arguing over why you made the choice you did, whether it's Jordin vs. Blake or SN1987A vs. the Pillars of Creation. Feel free to graze through all the Hubble highlights, then make the case for your favorite in the comments section below.

The hits are due to keep on coming in the months ahead - even though the telescope's Advanced Camera for Surveys suffered a crippling blow early this year. Villard said Hubble's team is getting ready to release a monster montage of 50 galactic collisions, and new pictures of the asteroids Ceres and Vesta should be coming out in support of NASA's upcoming Dawn mission (now due for launch no earlier than July 7).

Mars is due to make a close approach to Earth this Dec. 18, and Villard said Hubble's astronomers are already gearing up for that encounter. "We'll definitely get a look at Mars," he told me.

Looking further ahead, NASA is training a shuttle crew to ride to Hubble's rescue in September 2008. Spacewalkers would install upgraded equipment that would boost the telescope's observing capability by at least a factor of 10. So when it comes to Hubble's hit parade, you could well argue that the best is yet to come.

To see more of the best, not only from Hubble but also from other cosmic quarters, check out our latest installment of Cosmic Sightings. Every time we bring out a fresh batch of pictures, there are people who write in asking where they can find the larger-format originals. We can't provide some of the pictures because of copyright considerations, but here are Web links to others that are freely available:

  • Heavy lifting: The European Space Agency records the night launch of an Ariane 5 rocket.
  • Space pioneer dies: NASA offers a 1965 portrait of the late astronaut Wally Schirra.
  • Circling clouds: NASA's satellite view shows Subtropical Storm Andrea and Florida wildfires.
  • Queen says hello: NASA photographers documented Queen Elizabeth II's visit to Goddard Space Flight Center's mission control.
  • A bird's-eye view: This Hubble view of the grand-design galaxy M81 was a real crowd-pleaser.
  • Replenishing supplies: Check NASA's Human Spaceflight Web site for an up-close look at an arriving Progress cargo ship.
  • The next Hubble: This Web page offers more pictures of the full-scale mockup of the James Webb Space Telescope - and don't miss our virtual tour of the Webb Telescope.
  • Back into service: A close look at this NASA picture of the shuttle Atlantis' second rollout reveals the patches applied to the external fuel tank. Kennedy Space Center's database provides plenty of pictures of the rollout as well as other phases of the buildup to Atlantis' launch.
  • High above Saturn: The Cassini spacecraft sent back this cool blue image of Saturn and its rings.
  • Preparing for Mars: This inside look at the Mars Phoenix probe came from Kennedy Space Center.
  • Celestial sendoff: UP Aerospace has archived videos of the rocket launch that brought the ashes of Scotty, Gordo and 200 others to space and back.
  • 'Galilean' satellites: NASA's New Horizons probe sent back a family portrait of Jupiter's biggest moons.
  • Valleys on Mars: The Thermal Imaging System on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter delivered a stunning view of the Red Planet's meandering valleys.
  • A launch in China: Check out this article for further details about China's rocket launch for Nigeria, including the Xinhua photo of the Long March 3-B rocket on its pad.