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BEAUTY AND SCIENCE MEET

This stunning picture of 100,000 stars was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, but it was made possible by shuttle astronauts. Spacewalking scientists repaired and refurbished the Hubble in May and installed the camera that took this photo, which was just released.

The Hubble is an example of space science that works. The images it captures are simply not possible on Earth because the atmosphere diffuses and absorbs light.

The photos sent back from the telescope convey the vast beauty of space in ways that words cannot. In their majestic grandeur, they invoke not just science, but a sense of spirituality.

But these are not merely pretty pictures. The discoveries made possible by the Hubble are priceless.

This photo shows only a small part of Omega Centauri, a globular cluster that contains nearly 10 million stars between 10 and 12 billion years old - the varying colors indicate their life cycles. Images such as this give scientists insight into the formation of our own Milky Way galaxy - how our world came to be.

Even as the Hubble's latest renovation means it is better than ever and has far exceeded its original expected life, it is easy to forget rougher times. It started as a joke, a telescope that didn't work until astronauts fitted it with corrective eyewear - glasses, basically.

Since then, astronauts have repaired the Hubble several times, and it has repaid the effort by photographing dying stars, stars bursting to life, gravitational lenses and evidence of planets beyond our solar system. It even took a picture of where a comet hit Jupiter.

Hubble allows astronomers to look deep into galaxies that existed before the Milky Way was born and to plot where dark matter exists. The hunt for mysterious dark matter - which is invisible and yet makes up most of the universe's mass - will help solve fundamental questions of physics and how the universe itself was formed.

As NASA contemplates its future and the role of manned spaceflight, it is worth remembering that while machines can do most things better than people in the harsh environment of space, there are a few tasks that only astronauts can accomplish. Without handy repairs in space, the Hubble would have been an expensive piece of orbiting space junk. Instead, we have thousands of history-changing photographs that stoke humankind's sense of awe and wonder.

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