Mankind turned his telescope-aided eye to the sky only a mere 400 years ago, when Galileo’s telescope revealed rings around Saturn and moons around Jupiter. And it was less than 30 years ago that the world’s first major optical telescope was placed into space to look even farther into the cosmos.

The Hubble telescope, known the world over for its unique views into the stars, launched in April 1990. Since its launch, Hubble has captured the minds and hearts of aspiring astronomers and outer space dreamers the world over.

Peering deeply into the great unknown is at once unnerving, exciting, and unimaginable. It’s this undeniable appeal that makes many of the images captured by the Hubble telescope over the last three decades change the way humans see themselves in the cosmic scheme of things.

Here’s a look at some of the most iconic and perspective-changing Hubble telescope images captured to date.

Star Cluster NGC 3532 (1990)

Credit: NASA, ESA, and STScI; Ground Image E. Persson (Las Campanas Observatory, Chile) Observatories of the Carnegie Institution of Washington

The first image Hubble ever took was meant to help focus the telescope by capturing a recognized star cluster that had been photographed from Earth.

Unfortunately, while the image showed mankind that Hubble worked, the first photo of Star Cluster NGC 3532 was not nearly as clear as mission scientists expected it to be. The photo revealed a flaw in the telescope’s primary mirror, and in 1993 space-walking astronauts repaired the flaw.

Subsequent images captured by the Hubble telescope would not have been as breathtaking without the help of that very first photo.

The Pillars of Creation (1995)

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

The Pillars of Creation were first photographed in 1995 and have become one of the Hubble’s most familiar images demonstrating what the telescope can find in the deep recesses of space. The image shows three columns of gas backlit and illuminated by stars in the Eagle Nebula.

NASA provides a brief-but-enthralling description for the instantly recognizable image:

“The aptly named Pillars of Creation, featured in this stunning Hubble image, are part of an active star-forming region within the nebula and hide newborn stars in their wispy columns…Stretching roughly 4 to 5 light-years, the Pillars of Creation are a fascinating but relatively small feature of the entire Eagle Nebula, which spans 70 by 55 light-years.”

The Cat’s Eye Nebula (2004)

Credit: NASA, ESA, HEIC, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI AURA)

Hubblesite.org likens the image of the Cat’s Eye Nebula, released in September 2004, to “the penetrating eye of the disembodied sorcerer Sauron from “The Lord of the Rings.” It’s easy to see why.

The nebula resembles an all-seeing eye staring back at viewers, and the ominous, beautiful pattern is created by more than 11 concentric rings formed by ejections of gas and dust shells. It’s believed that these rings and shells are the result of a star ejecting its mass “in a series of pulses at 1,500-year intervals.”

The Crab Nebula (2003)

Credit: NASA, ESA J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State Univ.)

A composite image of the Crab Nebula was created in 2003 using Hubble images collected over time. The sprawling orange-green image (a combination of different light wavelengths) shows a six-light-year-wide expanse of a star’s supernova explosion.

Observation of the explosive event was first recorded by Chinese and Japanese astronomers nearly 1,000 years ago! What we see in the iconic image is different light wavelengths reaching across the cosmos to be captured by the Hubble.

The Butterfly Nebula (2009)

Credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team

The Butterfly Nebula was aptly named due to its resemblance of a beautiful crimson butterfly spreading its wings across the darkness of space.

In reality, the Butterfly Nebula is an ever-expanding mass of “roiling cauldrons of gas” tearing across the sky faster than we can imagine. The nebula formed when a star five times the mass of the Sun died and expelled its gasses into space.

The Horsehead Nebula (2013)

Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STSci, AURA)

There have been a number of different images of the Horsehead Nebula since the Hubble telescope’s initial launch, but a new infrared image was taken in 2013 to mark the telescope’s 23rd anniversary.

The Horsehead Nebula is one of the most famous nebulae in the sky, but it won’t be there forever. It’s predicted that the nebula will change shape over the next few million years and be destroyed by high-energy starlight.

Hubble Ultra-Deep Field (continuous)

Credit: A. S. Borlaff et al.

The Hubble Ultra-Deep Field (HUDF) is less a single image and more a combination/composite image of hundreds of photographs taken since the Hubble telescope was launched in 1990.

The image is a result of the Hubble telescope pointing at only a small patch of sky, but within that small patch is estimated to be 10,000 or more galaxies. Talk about changing the way humans look at the expanse of the cosmos!

The Hubble telescope is still discovering galaxies

The last servicing mission to Hubble was in 2009, and the telescope is far from finished with its exploration. The Hubble telescope is still discovering new galaxies in 2019, and only time will tell how far its reach extends. The images captured will continue to make humans question their place in the universe!