Despite its serious optical flaws, the Hubble Space Telescope has taken the clearest picture ever of mysterious Pluto and snapped a spectacular image of the ringed planet Saturn, astronomers announced Thursday.
The $1.5 billion telescope also has collected a variety of new images of galaxies, comets, stars and other celestial bodies that have provided tantalizing clues to such cosmological phenomena as enigmatic quasars and light-sapping black holes, scientists said.Although none of the images has produced any major new discoveries, the work has elated astronomers, who earlier had expressed pessimism the flawed instrument would be capable of world-class science because of its inability to bring starlight to a sharp focus.
"The pictures, to me, already demonstrate an enormous potential for discovery with the space telescope as it is now," said Riccardo Giacconi, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, which is in charge of doing research with the telescope.
"These observations give us a very good indication of the type of science we can carry out. We will do world-class science for years to come," he said at the first workshop held for reporters to discuss the telescope since its defect was discovered in April.
Previous images taken from Earth show Pluto, the ninth planet from the sun, and its moon, Charon, as overlapping blobs of light. The Hubble image shows two clearly distinct spheres.
Unlike other planets in Earth's solar system, the frigid, distant Pluto, located about 3.6 billion miles from the sun, has never been visited by any robot probes.
Previous pictures of Saturn taken by passing spacecraft have been more spectacular, but the Hubble image released Thursday is easily the best shot ever taken from the vicinity of Earth.