Unsung Heroes

The Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) space telescope spotted a ring of new stars in a galaxy thought to be “essentially dead,” NASA announced last week.

The galaxy, known as NGC 404, is a lenticular galaxy, which NASA’s press release says “are disk-shaped, with little ongoing star formation and no spiral arms.”


Galaxy NGC 404 seen in visible light (left) and ultraviolet light (right)

—Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/DSS

Apparently, scientists have difficulty observing NGC 404 because it is drowned out by the light from a giant red star called Mirach. Luckily GALEX’s mission is to survey the visible sky from orbit using ultraviolet light, which can penetrate Mirach’s “light pollution” and help scientists learn more about lenticular galaxies.

GALEX, unlike its more famous cousin Hubble, has been toiling away in relative obscurity since it launched in 2003. At least, I think I’m right that most people are much more likely to have heard of Hubble than GALEX. Pondering GALEX’s lower profile made me think of the other space telescopes that don’t get as much publicity as Hubble but are up there in space making scientific advances every year.

Here are my favorite “unsung hero” space telescopes:

The obvious reason for Hubble’s greater fame is that its cameras produce more gorgeous images than the other telescopes. However, that’s not to say that GALEX and its chums don’t produce great images, too. Sometimes images from a group of telescopes are combined to produce an image full of information, like this view of the Cartwheel galaxy.

Looking to the future, the James Webb Space Telescope will be launching in 2013 on a mission to “find the first galaxies that formed in the early Universe, connecting the Big Bang to our own Milky Way Galaxy,” according to NASA. It remains to be seen whether James Webb will capture the public’s imagination like the recently rebooted Hubble has.

I’ve only written about space telescopes here, and my list is far from complete. Feel free to comment and let me know your favorite missions, past or present. You’ll get extra points for obscurity.

–Stephen E. Mather

filling in for Victoria Jaggard