TIME space

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

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 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.

There were a lot of reasons that first picture was so unremarkable

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.”

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 animals

White House Unveils Plan to Save the Honeybees

Beekeepers lost more than 40% of honey bee colonies in the last year alone

The number of honeybees across the United States has been on the decline for years, threatening both the country’s environment and agricultural production. The White House unveiled Tuesday its long-awaited plan to reverse the trend.

Among other initiatives, the federal government will seek to increase the size of pollinator habitats, encourage training of future bee scientists and establish seed banks for bee-friendly plants.

More than 90 commercial crops in North America, including many nuts, fruits and vegetables, rely on honey bees, and honey bee pollination contributes billions to the U.S. economy, according to the White House. In recent years, the number of honey bees has declined precipitously. Beekeepers lost more than 40% of honeybee colonies in the last year alone, according to a study released last week.

“By expanding the conversation through enhanced public education and outreach, as well as strongly built public/private partnerships, the Strategy seeks to engage all segments of our society so that, working together, we can take meaningful and important steps to reverse pollinator declines,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy in a letter accompanying the announcement.

The announcement comes nearly a year after the Obama administration announced a task force to look into the health of honeybees.

TIME energy

How The Transportation Sector Is Moving Away from Petroleum

More than 8% of fuel used by the transportation sector came from non-petroleum sources in 2014

Transportation Fuel Sources
Courtesy of U.S. Energy Information Administration

The transportation sector is moving away from oil slowly but surely. Driven by growth in the use of biofuels and natural gas, non-petroleum energy now makes up the highest percentage of total fuel consumption for transport since 1954, according to a new report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

In total, 8.5% of fuel used by the transportation sector came from non-petroleum sources in 2014. Biomass from corn-based ethanol—still supported by generous government subsidies—represented the largest non-petroleum energy source and was used primarily to fuel cars and other light vehicles. Use of natural gas to operate pipelines followed close behind. The report also shows smaller but still significant increases in the use of electricity, biodiesel and natural gas in vehicles.

Climate change and fluctuating oil prices has made moving away from petroleum when possible a priority for governments and corporations alike. But it’s still uncertain which fuel will be the best and greenest replacement, according to Christopher R. Knittel, an MIT professor of energy economics . Ethanol, natural gas, hydrogen and electricity are all possibilities.

“We don’t know where we’ll be 50 years from now,” said Knittel. “There are four potential replacement for petroleum, and, ultimately, we don’t what’s going to win out.”

While the overall trend away from petroleum is encouraging—petroleum accounts for over a third of global greenhouse gases—the newfound reliance on biomass might be seen as a double-edged sword. Using ethanol, which is currently mixed with petroleum and represents around 10% of the gas sold for most cars in the U.S., provides only “marginal benefit” over petroleum in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, according to Knittel. Using electricity in the transport is generally better and cleaner, but the technology is still in its early stages. Where it does exist, as in Tesla cars, it’s often expensive and impractical for large-scale use.

TIME animals

It’s Raining Spiders in Australia

A house is surrounded by spiderwebs next to flood waters in Wagga Wagga, Australia.
Daniel Munoz—Reuters A house is surrounded by spiderwebs next to flood waters in Wagga Wagga, Australia.

They're descending by the millions

Baby spiders appear to be raining down from the sky in Australia.

“Millions” of baby spiders have been pouring down in the Southern Tablelands region of Australia, blanketing the area in webs, according to The Sydney Morning Herald.

One resident said it looked like his house was “abandoned and taken over by spiders.”

Researchers told The Sydney Morning Herald that the area may be seeing a mass migration of baby spiders. Spiders, especially young ones, often release a stream of silk as they jump, and they can be taken with the breeze and carried away. Mass migration can result in a large amount of what’s called gossamer or “Angel Hair,” which is the silk produced by spiders.

Some experts say that once the weather warms, the spiders will disperse.

[The Sydney Morning Herald]

TIME Research

Preschoolers Aren’t Getting Enough Exercise, Study Says

Plenty of exercise is essential for a child's development and to prevent obesity

Even very young children in the U.S. are not active enough, says a new study.

Preschoolers only get about 48 minutes of exercise on average each day, according to a paper by the University of Washington and published in the journal Pediatrics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends kids get at least one hour of daily physical activity.

After documenting children’s daily activities in 10 preschools in the Seattle area over a period of 50 days, researchers found that they were only exercising 12% of the time. The rest of their day was spent napping (29%), eating or generally being inactive.

On average, the children were outside for just more than half an hour a day, the study found.

“It’s just not enough,” Pooja Tandon, lead author of the study and assistant professor at the University of Washington, told USA Today.

Getting plenty of exercise at a young age, she said, was essential for a child’s development and for preventing obesity, which has risen dramatically over the past 30 years. According to the CDC, nearly 18% of children ages six to 11 are obese, compared to 7% in 1980.

To get kids more active, some health experts advocate combining academic activities in the classroom with exercise.

Debbie Chang, vice president of Nemours Children’s Health System in Delaware, says even reading a book, such as The Wheels on the Bus, can become part of a child’s daily exercise as they can get up and moving by acting out the scenes.

[USA Today]

TIME space

Russian Rocket Carrying Mexican Satellite Fails After Launch

Almost all the debris burned up in the atmosphere

(KIEV, Ukraine)—A Russian rocket carrying a Mexican satellite malfunctioned Saturday shortly after its launch—the latest mishap to hit Russia’s troubled space industry, whose Soviet-era glory has been tarnished by a series of launch failures.

The rocket, a Proton-M, was launched from the Russia-leased Baikonur launch pad in Kazakhstan. Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, said a problem involving steering engines occurred in the rocket’s third stage about eight minutes into its flight, 161 kilometers (97 miles) above the Earth. The agency said the rocket and Boeing-constructed satellite did not reach their planned orbit and almost all of the debris from the two burned up in the atmosphere.

Authorities in eastern Siberia still searched for any possible debris in the Zabaikalsky region that borders Mongolia and China, Russian news agencies reported. There was no word if any was found.

The last failed launch of a Proton-M occurred exactly a year ago, also causing the loss of a telecommunications satellite. Since then, there have been six successful flights.

The Interfax news agency quoted industry sources saying the crash could result in the suspension of all upcoming Proton-M launches, including the next one in June for a British satellite.

In a separate space failure Saturday, Roscosmos also reported that a Progress spaceship attached to the International Space Station failed to ignite its engine, thus failing to adjust the orbit of the space station. The agency said it was looking into why that happened but added the space station’s crew was not in any danger from the incident.

Russia’s space program has seen a string of launch failures in recent years. Space experts say the program has been hampered by a brain drain and a steady erosion of engineering and quality standards.

“It seems that the Russian space industry is disintegrating with cosmic speed,” Yuri Karash, a leading space scientist and member of the Russian Academy of Space Science, told the Interfax news agency. Due to low pay and a lack of new projects, those working in the space industry are “far from the best specialists and have no interest in cobbling together cosmic stools such as rockets developed a half-century ago.”

In April, an unmanned Russian cargo ship carrying 3 tons of supplies failed to dock with the International Space Station after it went into an uncontrollable spin after the launch.

That failure prompted Roscosmos to delay both the landing of some of the space station’s crew and the launch of their successors. Roscosmos space agency chief Igor Komarov said the April 28 launch failure was caused by a leak of fuel tanks in the Soyuz rocket’s third stage. Left in low orbit, the Progress cargo spaceship fell to Earth over the Pacific on May 8.

Due to that failure, a Russian official said three of the orbiting space station’s six-person crew, who had been scheduled to return to Earth in early May, were asked to stay in orbit until early June and the launch of their replacement crew was pushed back from late May to late July.

TIME climate change

A Large Chunk of Antarctica May Disappear Into the Ocean By 2020

A team of international scientists heads to Chile's station Bernardo O'Higgins, Antarctica on Jan. 22, 2015. Water is eating away at the Antarctic ice, melting it where it hits the oceans. As the ice sheets slowly thaw, water pours into the sea, 130 billion tons of ice (118 billion metric tons) per year for the past decade, according to NASA satellite calculations. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
Natacha Pisarenko—AP A team of international scientists heads to Chile's station Bernardo O'Higgins, Antarctica on Jan. 22, 2015.

The loss of the ice shelf will likely increase the rate of global sea level growth

A 618-square mile section of Antarctica’s Larsen B Ice Shelf has been melting away and may disappear into the ocean entirely by 2020, according to a new study. The area is the last remaining section of a 10,000-year-old ice shelf that partially collapsed in 2002.

“These are warning signs that the remnant is disintegrating,” said Ala Khazendar, a researcher at the NASA-affiliated Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). “Although it’s fascinating scientifically to have a front-row seat to watch the ice shelf becoming unstable and breaking up, it’s bad news for our planet.”

Researchers evaluated the rate at which the glaciers Leppard and Flask, the two primary glaciers that comprise the ice shelf, have been disintegrating in recent decades to estimate how much time the shelf has left. The rate at which they have flowed into the water has increased by more than 50% since 1997. The study, conducted by researchers from the University of California, Irvine, and the NASA-affiliated Jet Propulsion Laboratory, found that the glaciers have thinned by 65-72 feet since 2002.

The loss of this ice shelf will likely speed up the rate of sea level growth around the world. Ice shelves slow the rate that other ice enters the ocean and keeps sea levels from growing too quickly.

TIME space

SpaceX Invites You to Mars With These Throwback Travel Posters

The space transportation company makes light of its ambitions to take humans to Mars

TIME Addiction

Your Fingerprint Can Reveal Cocaine Use

A new way to accurately test for drugs may be through your fingerprint

Scientists can already tell from people’s fingerprints if they’ve touched cocaine, but a new study goes one step further, showing that fingerprints can now also reveal whether a person has ingested the drug. The study, published in Analyst, may pave the way for simpler drug testing that doesn’t require urine or blood.

In a small study, a team of researchers analyzed the fingerprints of a handful of patients in drug treatment centers using a process called mass spectrometry. Someone who uses cocaine excretes components of metabolized cocaine called benzoylecgonine and methylecgonine. The study authors showed they were able to detect the cocaine components in the residue left by the patients’ fingerprints on glass through the mass spectormetry chemical analysis technique.

“These results provide exciting opportunities for the use of fingerprints as a new sampling medium for secure, non-invasive drug detection,” the researchers write in their study. “The mass spectrometry techniques used here offer a high level of selectivity and consume only a small area of a single fingerprint, allowing repeat and high throughput analyses of a single sample.”

If such a technique could be made portable, the researchers believe it could possibly provide a simpler and less invasive alternative to current drug testing.

TIME A Year In Space

Exclusive: Space Station Astronauts Talk Loneliness, Missing the Weather and Their Crazy Work Schedule

Astronauts Scott Kelly and Terry Virts speak live from the space station

The first six weeks of Scott Kelly’s marathon year aboard the International Space Station (ISS) haven’t been easy. There was the reacclimation to zero-gravity, the failure of a Russian cargo ship carrying needed supplies, the cancellation of singer Sarah Brightman’s planned visit—to say nothing of the constant, minute-by-minute work schedule that is the stuff of any day aboard the station.

Kelly and astronaut Terry Virts discussed those things and more in one of at least four video chats TIME will conduct with the ISS during our exclusive Year in Space coverage. Phoning the station is not easy. It takes days of planning and at least an hour of sound checks before the uplink is made, and then long delays as questions and answers are relayed back and forth. It makes ordinary conversation a challenge.

Still, even in the 14 minutes the connection lasted—during which the station passed over Canada, the Great Lakes, Minneapolis, Denver, and Southern California—Kelly and Virts were surprisingly open, sharing their feelings about both the camaraderie and the sublime loneliness of being where they are. Kelly especially must be mindful of those feelings as he faces 10 more months of circling the Earth, while his family and friends and everything he knows lie 250 miles below him.

“It’s one thing I think about every single day,” he said.

And then, like any other astronaut, he put that aside and went back to his work.

Follow TIME’s coverage of the yearlong mission at time.com/space

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