Dr. Jeff Hester’s Cool Science

I was a member of the science team responsible for the original Wide Field/Planetary Camera that was launched with the Hubble Space Telescope. Following the discovery of a flaw in the telescope’s primary mirror, I joined the team that built the camera that would save Hubble.

Over my career my scientific interests have been far-ranging, from star formation and the structure of the interstellar medium to pulsars and the death throes of massive stars. I am especially well known for my work on objects such as the Eagle Nebula (I was responsible for Hubble’s Pillars of Creation) and the Crab Nebula.

Here are brief descriptions of a few of the things that I have worked on. I hope you find them interesting.

Star Formation in the Eagle NebulaPosted in Cool Science

Star Formation in the Eagle Nebula

The Hubble Space Telescope image of the Eagle Nebula, dubbed “The Pillars of Creation,” is one of the most famous astronomical images ever taken.


From the original press release: Eerie, dramatic pictures from the Hubble telescope show newborn stars emerging from “eggs” — not the barnyard variety — but rather, dense, compact pockets of interstellar gas called evaporating gaseous globules (EGGs). Hubble found the “EGGs,” appropriately enough, in the Eagle nebula, a nearby star-forming region 7,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Serpens.

m16_color_fullfield

These striking pictures resolve the EGGs at the tip of finger-like features protruding from monstrous columns of cold gas and dust in the Eagle Nebula (also called M16). The columns — dubbed “elephant trunks” — protrude from the wall of a vast cloud of molecular hydrogen, like stalagmites rising above the floor of a cavern. Inside the gaseous towers, which are light-years long, the interstellar gas is dense enough to collapse under its own weight, forming young stars that continue to grow as they accumulate more and more mass from their surroundings.

The image was taken as part of the telescope time that I was awarded as a member of the science team responsible for the Wide Field and PlaEagleStamp-scallopsnetary Camera 2, or WFPC2. The WFPC2 is the camera that saved Hubble from the disaster of it’s incorrectly polished primary mirror.

Greatest-Images

The image itself is actually a combination of thirty-two different CCD frames that were taken through filters that isolate light coming from certain types of atoms.

The red part of the image shows light from singly ionized sulfur atoms glowing at a wavelength of 0.673 microns. That light traces relatively cool, dense gas. Green shows light emitted at a wavelength of 0.656 microns by hydrogen atoms. Blue light shows emission from doubly ionized oxygen atoms at a wavelength of 0.501 microns. Eagle-color-frames-novaThis traces the hottest, most diffuse gas streaming away from the surfaces of the pillars. The whole thing is being powered by the intense ultraviolet light coming from a cluster of massive, very hot young stars that are many thousands of times more luminous than our own Sun.

The Pillars of Creation image has appeared in countless books, TV shows, and movies.  It was made into a US Postage stamp, and was recently selected by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential images in history.

 

But I will always remember the morning that we first saw the images and thought, “Wow!”

Excerpts from the PBS NOVA special, “Origins.”

Excerpts from NatGeo’s “Hubble’s Amazing Universe.”


Repairing the Hubble Space TelescopePosted in Cool Science

Repairing the Hubble Space Telescope

Before launch, the Hubble Space Telescope was being touted as the greatest advance in astronomy since Galileo first pointed a telescope at the heavens. But it didn’t take long to discover that it had a serious flaw. Hubble’s mirror was exquisite. It was just the wrong shape, leaving it unable to make sharp images of the heavens.


Hubble fell victim to a W.A.G. In the face of budget, schedule and political pressures, very smart people turned a blind eye to a wealth of evidence of Hubble’s problems when they could have been easily fixed. The result was a $1.5 billion disaster.

Excerpts from BBC’s “Miracle on Orbit.”

Almost overnight, Hubble became the butt of jokes on late night television. Jay Leno in particular took us to task. “What sound does a space turkey make? ‘Hubble Hubble Hubble'”

I have the dubious distinction of being the guy sitting at the computer console with live nationwide television cameras looking over my shoulder when the first images from Hubble were radioed to Earth. I was also a member of the science team responsible for the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2, the instrument that would ultimately restore Hubble to its original promise. With the eyes and weight of the world on us, we had the task of making sure that it worked.

The scene in the operations room when the first image from the repaired Hubble was radioed back to Earth.

It is amazing how close that effort came to succumbing to the same sorts of errors responsible for Hubble’s original failure.

Those experiences shaped my thinking throughout the remainder of my career. They form the kernel of my message today. Success doesn’t come from looking for reasons to think that we are right. Success comes from looking for the things that tell us we might be wrong.

Origin of the Solar SystemPosted in Cool Science

Origin of the Solar System

Some of the most interesting ideas come when people from very different backgrounds talk to each other. An example of this involves some work that I undertook along with meteoriticists (scientists who study meteorites) at ASU. Meteorites are fragments left over from the time when the Solar System formed, 4.5 billion years ago.


By carefully analyzing the composition of meteorites it was possible to determine that a particular radioactive isotope of iron was around when the Solar System formed. The only plausible source for the radioactive iron was a massive supernova very near the Sun close to the time that the Sun was born.

Discussing the origins of the Solar System for an episode of National Geographic’s Naked Science.

This tells us that the Sun formed not in a quiescent corner of the galaxy, but in a violent maelstrom shaped by stars hundreds of thousands of times more luminous than the Sun. The implications of this for the formation of our own Earth are profound.

The Crab NebulaPosted in Cool Science

The Crab Nebula

The Crab Nebula is the remnant of a supernova – the explosion of a massive, luminous star – observed by Chinese astrologers in 1054 AD. And to astrophysicists, the Crab is one of the most important objects in the sky.


At the heart of the Crab is the Crab Pulsar. The Crab Pulsar is a rapidly spinning neutron star with a radius of only about 10 km and a mass greater than the mass of our Sun. It has a magnetic field 2 trillion times stronger than Earth’s, and is spinning on its axis 30 times a second.

Movie of the wind from the Crab Pulsar. Orange shows visible light images taken with the Hubble Space Telescope. Blue shows X-ray images taken with the Chandra X-ray Observatory.

In those extreme conditions the Crab Pulsar creates matter and antimatter from our energy and sends it streaming out into space at close to the speed of light. The resulting cloud of relativistic particles emits radiation all the way from the most energetic gamma rays to the longest wavelength radio. I headed a team that used two of NASA’s Great Observatories, the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Observatory, to observe the Crab over an eight month period and make a movie of its dynamic behavior.

NASA Space Science Update: Televised press conference discussing the Hubble/Chandra movies of the Crab.

My invited review in Annual Reviews summarizes 20 years of research on the Crab Nebula.

My invited review in Annual Reviews summarizes 20 years of research on the Crab Nebula.

The physics going on at the heart of the Crab is similar to the physics going on around the supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies. But unlike distant quasars, cosmically speaking the Crab is in our own back yard. It is the only place in the sky where we can see these processes at work at close range.

The Crab Nebula was a major focus of my research for over 20 years. For those who would like to know more fascinating things about the Crab, I published an invited review of the Crab Nebula in Annual Reviews of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Press ReleasesPosted in Cool Science

Press Releases

This page covers a few of my scientific accomplishments. Over the course of my scientific career I was involved in a host of fascinating and important projects.


PR-PhotosHere is the Space Telescope Science Institute archive of Hubble-related press releases in which I played a part.

21st Century AstronomyPosted in Cool Science

21st Century Astronomy

More often that not the chasm that seems to exist between the scientist and the nonscientist is one of language. But it is possible to communicate across such boundaries. It was with that in mind that I took on the task of writing what became a very successful introductory astronomy textbook, 21st Century Astronomy.


From Amazon.com’s review: See the universe through the eyes of a scientist! 21st Century Astronomy’s distinctive writing style, superior art, and supporting media package all work together to teach how science works, help visualize basic concepts and physical processes, and keep us focused on the “big picture.”


Reader testimonials:

“Wonderful explanations. This is the astronomy book I never had as a kid! I’m a biologist and always thought I had the good fortune of working in the most interesting field. It sounds trite, but this book has opened my eyes to a universe out there. Now I even sort of understand black holes and the implications of relativity.”
“This book is really well written, covers all the topics I hoped it would… I’m not a student, just one who has enjoyed learning all my life, and this book has been a great addition to my library. It’s thorough, up to date, has great diagrams and photographs, and goes a bit farther than your usual astronomy text.”

Dr. Jeff Hester’s Cool Science  © Dr. Jeff Hester
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Reality Straight Up!

  • A Saguaro’s universe  Building a cactus starts with the Big BangPosted in For Your Consideration
  • Oklahoma Skies  To all the amateurs out there, thanks!Posted in For Your Consideration
  • Fight-or-Flight  How our Pleistocene brains (mis)handle modern threatsPosted in Coaching
  • In a Shark’s Eye  Science and the experience of wonderPosted in For Your Consideration
  • The Quandry of Unpredictability  Chaos, climate and an unpredictable futurePosted in For Your Consideration
  • Why I March for SciencePosted in Thoughts
  • Waiting for Skynet  The benefits of being a machinePosted in For Your Consideration
  • Where Are They?  Why E.T. might stay homePosted in For Your Consideration
  • Pulsars and Neutrinos  The history that LIGO forgotPosted in For Your Consideration
  • Not The End of Science  The emerging science of processPosted in For Your Consideration
  • Layer Upon Layer  The evolving edifice of sciencePosted in For Your Consideration
  • Puckish Brilliance  Jim Westphal had an uncommon mindPosted in For Your Consideration
  • A Saguaro’s universe
    Building a cactus starts with the Big Bang

    The iconic saguaro cactus gives the desert an otherwordly beauty. That beauty does not exist in isolation. It embodies the fascinating and awe-inspiring processes that have shaped the universe, going all the way back to the Big Bang itself.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

  • Oklahoma Skies
    To all the amateurs out there, thanks!

    Looking at room full of amateur astronomers, gathered for the Okie-Tex Star Party under the spectacularly dark skies of the Oklahoma Panhandle, I am reminded of my own roots and those who helped me discover the universe.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

  • Fight-or-Flight
    How our Pleistocene brains (mis)handle modern threats

    A strong fight-or-flight reaction served our evolutionary ancestors well. If the leopard catches you, that’s it! But today a visceral response to a not-so-mortal threat seldom improves things. If you want to get a handle on those intense, counterproductive bouts of emotion, start by understanding where fight-or-flight came from in the first place.

    Read Article

  • In a Shark’s Eye
    Science and the experience of wonder

    Alone, 100 feet underwater, with a shark in its element, I am overwhelmed by a mixture of awe, beauty, joy, and intellectual wonder at the world that brings us together. In that moment, I experience just what science is all about.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

  • The Quandry of Unpredictability
    Chaos, climate and an unpredictable future

    Chaos is a sticky wicket for science. There are things a correct theory like climate change cannot predict, but there are a lot of things that it can. It’s important to understand which is which.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

  • Why I March for Science

    On Earth Day, April 22, 2017, people around the nation will March for Science. It seems strange to need to march in support of the idea that pronouncements from politicians cannot change the nature of reality, or that evidence matters when making decisions. But such are the peculiar times in which we live.

    Read Article

  • Waiting for Skynet
    The benefits of being a machine

    For biological organisms, interstellar travel is hopelessly difficult, and probably pointless. For sentient machines, however, home is the environment you were built for.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

  • Where Are They?
    Why E.T. might stay home

    It would be fun to think there is a flourishing interstellar civilization of humanoid aliens out there. But then it would also be nice to believe in unicorns and midichlorians. It would be nice, but they probably aren’t there.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

  • Pulsars and Neutrinos
    The history that LIGO forgot

    Gilding the lily makes everybody look bad. When the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory detected ripples in the fabric of space-time from a pair of merging black holes, it was a technological and scientific accomplishment without peer! But LIGO did not “discover” gravity waves.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

  • Not The End of Science
    The emerging science of process

    Fundamental change is always messy. As science tackles the complex processes that shape the real world it is having to reinvent itself on the fly. Welcome to the Wild West!

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

  • Layer Upon Layer
    The evolving edifice of science

    As science has evolved from simple observation to deep understanding, each new way of thinking about the world has transformed not only science, but human society. That evolution is far from over.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

  • Puckish Brilliance
    Jim Westphal had an uncommon mind

    From roughneck to Principle Investigator of Hubble’s Wide Field/Planetary Camera, Jim Westphal showed just how far competence, curiosity, and a flawless bullshit filter can take you.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

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Recent Article Mobile

  • A Saguaro’s universe  Building a cactus starts with the Big BangPosted in For Your Consideration
  • Oklahoma Skies  To all the amateurs out there, thanks!Posted in For Your Consideration
  • Fight-or-Flight  How our Pleistocene brains (mis)handle modern threatsPosted in Coaching
  • In a Shark’s Eye  Science and the experience of wonderPosted in For Your Consideration
  • The Quandry of Unpredictability  Chaos, climate and an unpredictable futurePosted in For Your Consideration
  • Why I March for SciencePosted in Thoughts
  • Waiting for Skynet  The benefits of being a machinePosted in For Your Consideration
  • Where Are They?  Why E.T. might stay homePosted in For Your Consideration
  • Pulsars and Neutrinos  The history that LIGO forgotPosted in For Your Consideration
  • Not The End of Science  The emerging science of processPosted in For Your Consideration
  • Layer Upon Layer  The evolving edifice of sciencePosted in For Your Consideration
  • Puckish Brilliance  Jim Westphal had an uncommon mindPosted in For Your Consideration
  • The iconic saguaro cactus gives the desert an otherwordly beauty. That beauty does not exist in isolation. It embodies the fascinating and awe-inspiring processes that have shaped the universe, going all the way back to the Big Bang itself.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Looking at room full of amateur astronomers, gathered for the Okie-Tex Star Party under the spectacularly dark skies of the Oklahoma Panhandle, I am reminded of my own roots and those who helped me discover the universe.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • A strong fight-or-flight reaction served our evolutionary ancestors well. If the leopard catches you, that’s it! But today a visceral response to a not-so-mortal threat seldom improves things. If you want to get a handle on those intense, counterproductive bouts of emotion, start by understanding where fight-or-flight came from in the first place.

  • Alone, 100 feet underwater, with a shark in its element, I am overwhelmed by a mixture of awe, beauty, joy, and intellectual wonder at the world that brings us together. In that moment, I experience just what science is all about.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Chaos is a sticky wicket for science. There are things a correct theory like climate change cannot predict, but there are a lot of things that it can. It’s important to understand which is which.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • On Earth Day, April 22, 2017, people around the nation will March for Science. It seems strange to need to march in support of the idea that pronouncements from politicians cannot change the nature of reality, or that evidence matters when making decisions. But such are the peculiar times in which we live.

  • For biological organisms, interstellar travel is hopelessly difficult, and probably pointless. For sentient machines, however, home is the environment you were built for.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • It would be fun to think there is a flourishing interstellar civilization of humanoid aliens out there. But then it would also be nice to believe in unicorns and midichlorians. It would be nice, but they probably aren’t there.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Gilding the lily makes everybody look bad. When the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory detected ripples in the fabric of space-time from a pair of merging black holes, it was a technological and scientific accomplishment without peer! But LIGO did not “discover” gravity waves.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Fundamental change is always messy. As science tackles the complex processes that shape the real world it is having to reinvent itself on the fly. Welcome to the Wild West!

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • As science has evolved from simple observation to deep understanding, each new way of thinking about the world has transformed not only science, but human society. That evolution is far from over.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • From roughneck to Principle Investigator of Hubble’s Wide Field/Planetary Camera, Jim Westphal showed just how far competence, curiosity, and a flawless bullshit filter can take you.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

Over his 30 year career as an internationally known astrophysicist, Dr. Jeff Hester was a key member of the team that repaired the Hubble Space Telescope. With one foot always on the frontiers of knowledge, he has been mentor, coach, team leader, award-winning teacher, administrator and speaker, to name a few of the hats he has worn. His Hubble image, the Pillars of Creation, was chosen by Time Magazine as among the 100 most influential photographs in history.
©Dr. Jeff Hester LLC, 5301 S. Superstition Mountain Dr., Suite 104 #171, Gold Canyon, AZ 85118