Hubble in Orbit

Photo: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in April 2015.

From the magnificent "Pillars of Creation" to the oldest and deepest reaches of observable space, the Hubble Space Telescope has taken us to places beyond our imagination.

The telescope was launched into orbit on April 24, 1990, and despite an embarrassing technical setback in the beginning, the vast amount of knowledge that scientists have gleaned from its massive lens over the years has proved invaluable to our understanding of the universe.

For its 26th birthday this year, NASA scientists unveiled a Hubble photograph of "an enormous bubble being blown into space by a super-hot, massive star." This feature is known as the Bubble Nebula, and it's massive. It's seven light-years across, NASA says — about one-and-a-half times the distance from our sun to its nearest neighbor, Alpha Centauri. This is the clearest image captured so far, astronomers say.

According to NASA, this is a Hubble image of an enormous bubble being blown into space by a super-hot, massive star. According to NASA, this is a Hubble image of an enormous bubble being blown into space by a super-hot, massive star. This feature is called the Bubble Nebula. (Photo: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team )

Of course, the colorful and ethereal views that make up so much of Hubble's iconic portfolio wouldn't exist without the expertise of imaging scientists like Zoltan Levy. As the Hubble imaging team leader at the Space Telescope Science Institute, Levy has spent nearly 20 years transforming Hubble's raw, black-and-white data into jaw-dropping imagery that illustrates important scientific discoveries while also providing inspiration to educators, media outlets and the public.

"I have been fortunate to produce some of the most remarkable [Hubble] images, including the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, Orion Nebula, Tadpole Galaxy, Cone Nebula, V838 Mon, Helix Nebula, Carina Nebula, M82, among many others," Levy writes on his website.

Hubble's greatest hits: Cosmic fireworks

Photo: NASA, ESA, F. Paresce (INAF-IASF, Bologna, Italy), R. O'Connell (University of Virginia, Charlottesville), and the Wide Field Camera 3 Science Oversight Committee 2

April 2015 Nat Geo coverIn April 2015, to celebrate Hubble's birthday, Levy offered up a list of his top 10 favorite Hubble images for National Geographic — including this image of the Tarantula Nebula (above).

"Sparkling with energy, a cluster of young stars lights up a cavity in the roiling dust of the Tarantula Nebula. The many-legged nebula is located in one of Earth's closest galactic neighbors, the Large Magellanic Cloud."

Continue below to see a few more of Levy's Hubble photo picks. Want to see more images captured by the beloved space telescope? National Geographic has curated a captivating online gallery.

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Hubble's greatest hits: Star power

Photo: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Star Power

"Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 looks through the Horsehead Nebula in a uniquely detailed infrared image. A classic target of astronomy, the nebula normally appears dark against a bright background, but Hubble penetrates the shroud of interstellar dust and gas."
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Hubble's greatest hits: Celestial wings

Photo: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team

Celestial Wings

"Gas from a dying star resembles a butterfly, its lacy wings formed by the ejection of its outer layers. Unique and colorful planetary nebulae like NGC 6302 have provided some of Hubble’s most popular images."
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Hubble's greatest hits: Echo of light

Photo: NASA, ESA and H.E. Bond (STScI)

Echo of light

"Over several months in 2002, Hubble captured a cosmic spectacle — a ragged balloon of dust that appeared to expand around the star V838 Monocerotis. In reality, an expanding blast of the star’s light was illuminating the dust cloud."
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Hubble's greatest hits: Peerless beauty

Photo: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA). Acknowledgment: P. Knezek (WIYN)

Peerless Beauty

"This iconic Hubble image of the spiral galaxy NGC 1300 is suffused with detail — bright blue young stars, the dust lanes spiraling around the bright nucleus, distant galaxies shining through."

Catie Leary ( @catieleary ) writes about science, travel, animals and the arts.

Walk down memory lane with Hubble's greatest hits
In honor of the space telescope's birthday, scientist Zoltan Levy shares his favorite Hubble snapshots.