On the right is part of the first image taken with NASA's Hubble Space Telescope's (HST) Wide Field/Planetary Camera. It is shown with a ground-based picture from Las Campanas, Chile, Observatory of the same region of the sky.
On the right is part of the first image taken with NASA's Hubble Space Telescope's (HST) Wide Field/Planetary Camera. It is shown with a ground-based picture from Las Campanas, Chile, Observatory of the same region of the sky. Ground Image: E. Persson (Las Campanas Observatory, Chile)/Observatories of the Carnegie Institution of Washington; Hubble Image: NASA, ESA, and STScI

The Story of Hubble's First Photo — 25 Years Later

May 19, 2015

It ain't much, is it? For all of the jaw-dropping, eye-popping, gobsmacking images the Hubble Space Telescope has sent home over the years, the smudgy, black and white picture above right is in some ways the most important. That's because it's the first picture the telescope took, on May 20, 1990—a quarter century ago.

The subject of this first-ever cosmic screen grab was the binary star HD96755 in the open cluster NGC 3532, about 1,300 light years away. HD96755 is the vaguely snowman-shaped object at the top of the image; the smaller one, below it and to the right, was a stellar bystander that simply photo-bombed the image. NASA released the picture along with a second one, top left, taken of the same objects by a ground-based telescope in Chile's Atacama Desert, to show that the $2.5 billion Hubble could do a better job. Which it did. A little.

There were a lot of reasons that first picture was so unremarkable—and they had little to do with Hubble's famously warped mirror, a flaw that engineers would discover only slowly and that NASA would not confirm and announce until nearly a month later. Rather, the initial shot of HD96755 was intended simply what's known as a first light test.

"First light implies that the light goes all the way through the optics and makes its way to the detectors," says Dave Leckrone, who was a Hubble deputy project scientist at the time and was the senior project scientist from later in 1990 to 2009. "It's only when that happens that you can say first light has been achieved."

See the 50 Best Photos Taken by Hubble

Pillars of Creation
Pillars of Creation: Originally taken on April 1, 1995, this image has become one of the most iconic to come from the Hubble Telescope. This version, released in 2015, shows a higher resolution image of the region. The pillars are part of a small region of the Eagle Nebula, a vast star-forming region 6,500 light-years from Earth. Image released in Jan. 2015NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
Pillars of Creation
Cat's Eye Nebula
Horsehead Nebula
Galaxy M106
The Crab Nebula
Hubble's Sharpest View of the Orion Nebula
The Hourglass Nebula
The Butterfly Nebula
New Hubble image of NGC 2174
Sharpest ever view of the Andromeda Galaxy
Jupiter's Eye
The Sombrero Galaxy
Interacting Galaxies Arp 273
Barred Spiral Galaxy NGC 1300
The Ring Nebula
Carina Nebula
Saturn
V838 Monocerotis
Spiral Galaxy NGC 2841
Planetary Nebula NGC 5189
The Carina Nebula: Star Birth in the Extreme
The Most Colorful View of the Universe
Spectacular Hubble view of Centaurus A
spiral galaxy M100
SNR 0509
Southern Pinwheel, M83
Colorful Stars Galore Inside Globular Star Cluster Omega Centauri
NGC 3603
Hubble Observes Infant Stars in Nearby Galaxy
Sharpless 2-106 Hubble
A Reflection Nebula in Orion
Pluto
Comet Ison
Pismis 24 Hubble
Nucleus of Galaxy Centaurus A
The Whirlpool Hubble
Abell 370
Double Cluster NGC 1850
Cone Nebula
Pleiades Hubble
Turquoise-tinted plumes in the Large Magellanic Cloud
30 Doradus Hubble
Hubble's First Observation Of Jupiter
Mars Hubble
NGC 4603
The Eskimo Nebula NGC 2392 Hubble
The Signature of a Supermassive Black Hole M84 Hubble
The Tadpole Hubble
Pillars of Creation: Originally taken on April 1, 1995, this image has become one of the most iconic to come from the Hu
... VIEW MORE

NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
1 of 50

That flushing of the pipes typically happens away from the eyes of the press, since first light images are notoriously lousy. In the case of Hubble, the disappointment would be even keener, because the telescope had been so highly touted for so long that anything less than a full-color glimpse into the very heart of the universe was bound to disappoint.

But an overzealous public affairs officer invited the media to be present at the Goddard Space Center when Hubble first opened its eyes, and the press obliged, filling the visitors' center where a viewing screen was in place. "The astronomers groaned when the media was invited," recalls Leckrone. "And everyone was a little perplexed and uncomfortable when the image came in because it was so out of focus. Someone said 'Is that the way it's supposed to look?'"

NASA didn't help matters by releasing the picture with the boast that it was 50% sharper than what the Chilean telescope could do. That was a decidedly minor accomplishment that seemed all the worse since it required an exposure 10 times as long—30 seconds for the telescope in space compared to just three seconds for the one on the ground.

Hubble engineers promised the pictures would get better as they calibrated the telescope's instruments, and they had a lot of tricks to try—including adjusting 24 pressure pads that lined the back of the primary mirror to compensate for any change in shape caused by going from the 1 g of Earth to the zero g of space. But nothing the space agency tried worked and it would not be until December of 1993 that the space shuttle Columbia would ride to the rescue, bringing Hubble a set of corrective optics that would restore its vision to what it was supposed to be.

Those three and a half years seemed like a long time to wait back then. But they turned out to be nothing compared to 25 years worth of images that have resulted—and the dazzling look they've given us billions of years into the universe's past.

TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website. Offers may be subject to change without notice.