In these grim times, we all need a bit of an escape – so how about travelling far from Earth, through both space and time? Thanks to a little widget by NASA, you can now find out what the venerable Hubble Space Telescope, currently celebrating its 30th anniversary, saw on your birthday.
All you need to do is type in your birth month and day, and an unquestionably gorgeous shot of something out there in the cosmos will pop up. On my birthday, albeit not taken in the year of my birth because (sigh) I’m a bit older than 30, Hubble took a shot of NGC 3982, a spiral galaxy 68 million light-years away.
This swirl of stars, which we are seeing as it looked around the time Tyrannosaurus rex was still stomping about on Earth, is remarkably informative even at a glance: the pinker parts of this shot are star-forming regions of coalescing dust and gas, while the bluer bits are nurseries of baby stars.
This spiral galaxy, seen face-on in this shot, was discovered in 1789 by William Herschel, the astronomer who also found Uranus and tried to call it George. When he first saw NGC 3982, he misclassified the somewhat blurry illuminations as a planetary nebula, not a galaxy. You can actually see it yourself with a ground-based telescope, although for your household and backyard variety of telescopes it will show up as a diffuse splotch of light.
It also happens to be my dog’s birthday today: she’s one! Although she doesn’t understand the concepts of birthdays, let alone deep space and galactic timescales, I’m sure she’d appreciate that on the day she was born (albeit in 2015), Hubble took a spectacular shot of the Veil Nebula, a storm of superheated debris left over from the 10,000 to 20,000-year-old explosion of a star more than twenty times more massive than the Sun.
This aesthetically satisfying search engine is certainly a lot of fun, but what it really demonstrates is how constantly and tirelessly Hubble has been working throughout its lifetime. The fact that it has at least one image for every day of the year is a testament to its seemingly unending lifespan and its science team’s insatiable appetite for the stars.
Go on, click here and give it a whirl. What did Hubble spy on your birthday? You can even show off your serendipitous Hubble shot on social media using the dedicated hashtag, #Hubble30, if that’s your sort of thing.