In December 1995, astronomers around the world vying for a chance to use the hottest new tool in astronomy: the Hubble Space Telescope Bob Williams didn’t have to worry about all of this As head of the institution that ran Hubble, Williams could use the telescope to observe anything he wanted And he decided not to point it at anything in particular

Williams' colleagues told him, as politely as possible, that it was a bad idea But Williams had a hunch that Hubble would see something worthwhile The telescope had already captured the glow of distant galaxies, and more Hubble was looking in one direction, the more light he detected.

So, the Hubble telescope looked at the same space, without interruption, pendant 10 days – precious time on a very expensive machine – taking a photo after an exposure as he circled the earth The resulting image was stunning: some 3000 galaxies sparkled like gems in the dark The sight dates back billions of years, revealing other cosmic places as they were when their light left them and began to pass through the universe.

«I still like to look at this picture», Williams told me earlier this year, as Hubble celebrated its 30th anniversary in space

Hubble, the most powerful telescope in orbit, continues to produce dazzling sightings of near and far targets, from the familiar planets of our solar system to the mysterious suns of other worlds The mission could be one of the easiest science ventures to sustain in the midst of a plague When I visited the Hubble Mission Operations Center in the Maryland last December, only one person was seated inside the control room, all the personnel needed to manage the mostly automated telescope – and, it turned out three months later, when the state reported its first COVID-19 case, the right number to avoid getting entangled with a nearby thriving virus

Hubble has a fairly clear view of the universe from its orbiting perch, away from the atmosphere which distorts and blocks the cosmic light from beyond His images are, to use a very unscientific word, pretty You don't have to be an astronomer, nor to know that the galaxy you are looking at is called NGC 2525 to appreciate them. These images can serve as momentary distractions, small bursts of wonder, and they might even be good for the spirit At a time when the coronavirus has shrunk so many human worlds, Hubble can still offer a long-term vision – a glimpse of places that exist beyond ourselves

Picture yourself in a panoramic view somewhere on Earth, like the rim of the Grand Canyon or the shore of an ocean stretching beyond the horizon line As your brain processes the sight and its sheer vastness, feelings of respect Looking at a photo is not the same, but we might get a dose of it when we look at a particularly bright Hubble image of a star cluster. The experience of fear, whether we are standing on top of a mountain or sitting in front of a computer screen, can drive to «decreased sense of self», an expression psychologists use to describe feelings of smallness or insignificance in the face. of something bigger than yourself As alarming as it sounds, research has shown that feeling can be a good thing: a dose of fear can increase feelings of connection with other people.

“Some people have the feeling, when they look at millions of light years, that our ups and downs ultimately make no sense on this scale”, says David Yaden, researcher in psychopharmacology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and who has studied the experiences of self-transcendence, including among astronauts «But I think that [space images] can also draw our attention to the preciousness of local significance – our family, our family, this Earth It is not a leap that, I think, always happens, but I think the benefits go to the people who take that leap”

The experience is like a miniature version of «the overview effect», the mental change that many astronauts have experienced after seeing the Earth as it is, a shining planet suspended in the dark nothingness, precious and precarious Astronauts have put this sentiment into a few charming words over the years, but few have described it as succinctly as Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who saw the earth from the moon in 1971: «You develop instant global awareness, orientation of people, intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world and an obligation to do something about it”

Most of us are not astronauts, and we'll never see «the overview» like that on Earth, photos of a giant telescope in orbit, capturing the grandeur of the cosmos, are as close as possible The appeal of these images is long-lasting enough that a website called Astronomy Picture of the Day has been around since 1995, the year Hubble reached a dark void and pulled out glittering treasures. The site looks exactly like it used to be 25 years, with the no-frills Times New Roman look of the first internet. Robert Nemiroff, astronomer at Michigan Tech and co-founder of the website, Told me pageviews were up by about 75% compared to last year, starting with a peak in April. These visitors left no clue as to their intentions – maybe people were just spending more time online, locked inside; maybe they were looking for a jolt of feeling that would bring their perspective outside the walls of their own home

This is the hope of Judy Schmidt, who spends hours every week with Hubble Schmidt's observations, an amateur astronomer, sifts through years old telescope data and cleans it, producing radiant images One of its strengths is lightening the shadows that computer software for years 90 have missed, by discovering new features In a way, Schmidt organizes the cosmos and suspends it in the internet ether, where people can go, like museum visitors, and bow your head in a particularly impressive space that, during a moment, could make them feel small. , but reassuringly «I just hope their life has improved even in the few seconds it took to watch it and they thought, Wow, It is over there», Schmidt told me

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