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Hubble celebrates 23 years on the job with a Horsehead of a different color


The Horsehead Nebula shines in a Hubble Space Telescope image that marks this month's 23rd anniversary of the orbiting observatory's launch.

Astronomers have come out with a Horsehead Nebula of a different color to celebrate the Hubble Space Telescope's 23rd birthday.

The iconic nebula in the constellation Orion, about 1,500 light-years away, can be seen even through small telescopes. In visible light, it's a dark dust cloud in the shape of a horse's head, silhouetted against a backdrop of glowing hydrogen gas. But the Horsehead takes on a completely different look in the new view released Friday.

"This image was taken in the infrared," Joe Liske, an astronomer from the European Southern Observatory, explains in a video introducing the picture. "In infrared light, we can pierce right through some of the bulky plumes of dusty material which usually mask and obscure the inner regions of the Horsehead. The result is this rather fragile-looking structure, made of delicate, wispy folds of gas — very different to the nebula's appearance in the visible."

The infrared glow, captured by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3, lights up the nebula's clouds from within. Liske says it's "a fitting celebration of an incredible 23 years of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope."

The Hubble team traditionally releases an eye-popping shot to celebrate the anniversary of the space telescope's launch on April 24, 1990. As part of this year's celebration, the Hubble Heritage Project asked astronomers around the world to send in their own Horsehead Nebula photos, and you can see the collection via Flickr and Tumblr.

Like a veteran racehorse, Hubble is hitting its stride — but that hasn't always been the case. The first couple of years of operation were hampered by a flaw in the telescope's main mirror. Equipment to compensate for the problem was installed during a crucial series of spacewalks 20 years ago, in 1993. The shuttle Atlantis paid a final servicing visit to Hubble in 2009, and the telescope has been working just fine since then.

Hubble operations have been extended through 2016 — and if the telescope remains in good working order, it's likely to continue being funded at least until 2018, when the $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled for launch. Eventually, Hubble will have to be sent down to a fiery doom. But who knows? Maybe the old telescope will hang around to experience life after 30.

Astronomer Joe Liske of the European Southern Observatory guides you through a new view of the Horsehead Nebula in a "Hubblecast" video from the European Space Agency's Hubble team.

NASA / ESA / STSI via Reuters

See the Hubble Space Telescope's best-known images.

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Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.