Spiral Galaxies Shimmer in Hubble Telescope's 27th Birthday Photos

Twenty-seven years after it launched into orbit, the Hubble Space Telescope continues to snap spectacular views of the cosmos. The aging space observatory, which launched into low Earth orbit on April 24, 1990, kicked off this year's birthday celebration with some dazzling new views of a pair of spiral galaxies.

NASA released the photos Thursday (April 20), just a few days before the anniversary. The images show NGC 4302 and NGC 4298, two neighboring pinwheel galaxies that have similar structures yet look completely different. NGC 4298 is clearly a spiral galaxy like the Milky Way, but NGC 4302 looks more like a glowing bar of stars. Because we see NGC 4302 edge-on, its spiral shape is not apparent.

In celebration of the 27th anniversary of the launch of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope on April 24, 1990, astronomers used the legendary telescope to take a portrait of a stunning pair of spiral galaxies. The edge-on galaxy is called NGC 4302, and the tilted galaxy is named NGC 4298. (Image credit: NASA/ESA/STScI/M. Mutchler)

"This starry pair offers a glimpse of what our Milky Way galaxy would look like to an outside observer," Hubble scientists said in a statement. [Celestial Photos: Hubble Space Telescope's Latest Cosmic Views

Both of these spiral galaxies lie about 55 million light-years away, in the constellation Coma Berenices, also known as "the Wig." They're also members of the Virgo Cluster, which contains up to 2,000 galactic neighbors.

This view from the Hubble Space Telescope zeroes in on a small, random location of the sky that is filled with distant spiral galaxies. The image was taken with Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys while Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 was imaging NGC 4302 and NGC 4298. (Space telescopes can multitask, too!)
 (Image credit: M. Mutchler/NASA/ESA/STScI)

The famous astronomer William Herschel discovered both galaxies in 1784, but he originally called them "spiral nebulas" because he did not know that they were distant galaxies. 

More than a century later, astronomer and cosmologist Edwin Hubble realized that these "spiral nebulas" were actually galaxies. Another century later, NASA named the Hubble Space Telescope after him. 

This image shows the same two galaxies imaged with Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) in two different light channels — infrared (IR) and ultraviolet/visible light (UVIS) — with different color filters. Because infrared light can pierce through interstellar dust, more stars are visible in the infrared images. (Image credit: Z. Levay/B. Franke/NASA/ESA/STScI/Focal Pointe Observatory)

The Hubble Space Telescope is a joint project between NASA and the European Space Agency. Since its launch 27 years ago, it has imaged more than 42,000 celestial objects and circled Earth nearly 148,000 times while racking up 3.8 billion "frequent-flier miles," Hubble scientists said. 

Email Hanneke Weitering at hweitering@space.com or follow her @hannekescience. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.

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Hanneke Weitering
Contributing expert

Hanneke Weitering is a multimedia journalist in the Pacific Northwest reporting on the future of aviation at FutureFlight.aero and Aviation International News and was previously the Editor for Spaceflight and Astronomy news here at Space.com. As an editor with over 10 years of experience in science journalism she has previously written for Scholastic Classroom Magazines, MedPage Today and The Joint Institute for Computational Sciences at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. After studying physics at the University of Tennessee in her hometown of Knoxville, she earned her graduate degree in Science, Health and Environmental Reporting (SHERP) from New York University. Hanneke joined the Space.com team in 2016 as a staff writer and producer, covering topics including spaceflight and astronomy. She currently lives in Seattle, home of the Space Needle, with her cat and two snakes. In her spare time, Hanneke enjoys exploring the Rocky Mountains, basking in nature and looking for dark skies to gaze at the cosmos.