Rotten Egg Nebula, full of sulfur

Asteroid trail

Pleiades star cluster

Our eyes have feasted on a steady stream of dazzling celestial pictures over the past seven years, thanks to NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. We've seen breathtaking views of swirling galaxies; towering, rainbow-colored pillars of gas and dust where stars are born; and deep views of the sky brimming with an unfathomable number of faraway galaxies.

Most of these awe-inspiring pictures come from the main camera onboard Hubble. It's called the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2, and it was developed and built by JPL. The camera has captured not only these faraway celestial wonders but also clear views of Mars, Jupiter and other planets of our own solar system.

While the thousands of images excite our eyes and our imaginations, they also teach scientists volumes about how galaxies and stars are born, live and die. They help them decipher the mysteries of our own Milky Way galaxy and the stars within it, including our own star, the Sun.

Hubble Gets a Pair of Eyeglasses

These magnificent images might have been lost if it weren't for some very clever engineers and scientists at JPL. When Hubble was launched in 1990 from the Space Shuttle Discovery, its 2.4 meter (2.6 yards) primary mirror was incorrectly shaped. This prevented the telescope from focusing light from an object to a single sharp point. Instead, objects looked like a fuzzy halo. JPL engineers were called in to help and came up with a novel idea - to fit the telescope with astronomical eyeglasses. Thus, the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 was created and built at JPL.

In December 1993, astronauts on Space Shuttle Endeavor took the new camera to Hubble. They opened the shuttle's cargo bay, grabbed the telescope from its orbit and spent five days tinkering with it. They installed the camera and released the telescope back into space. Fitted with its new "eyeglasses," Hubble began capturing image after image and beaming these postcards from space back to Earth.

The "Action" Behind the Camera

The instrument works its magic with three wide-field cameras and one high-resolution planetary camera, much as a regular camera might have a wide-angle lens and a telephoto lens. But this is no ordinary, garden-variety camera. It uses digital technology many times more sensitive than the type used in the new digital cameras sold to the public.

The Hubble camera has four pieces of high-tech circuitry called charge-coupled devices. These devices, each the size of a postage stamp, can see objects 1,000 million times fainter than the human eye can see. Each device contains 640,000 light-sensitive picture elements, called pixels. When each picture element collects light, it's translated into a number. All 2,560,000 numbers from these picture elements are beamed to computers on Earth, where they are converted into images of stars, galaxies, nebulae and other celestial objects.

It's all a matter of numbers, engineering and technology, but the final result is a gallery of breathtaking pictures from deep in the universe.

FAST FACTS:

The Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 has taken more than 100,000 pictures.

The camera is the size of a baby grand piano and weighs about 318 kilograms (700 pounds).

The Hubble Space Telescope is named for American astronomer Edwin P. Hubble, who in 1924 discovered other galaxies beyond our Milky Way and found they appear to be moving away from us.

Hubble weighs 24,500 pounds (11,475 kilograms), about as much as 10 cars.

Hubble orbits 375 miles (600 kilometers) above Earth, less than the distance between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

It takes Hubble only 97 minutes to orbit Earth completely. That's like traveling from New York to Los Angeles in 10 minutes.

Hubble travels at nearly 29,000 kilometers per hour (18,000 miles per hour), which is 80 times faster than the average speed of an Indy 500 race car.