First Hubble, and now James Webb: Boldly looking where no telescope has looked before.

The earliest science-fiction writers talked about “sense of wonder” as the creative instinct driving fictional exploration of the stars, in short stories, novels and, eventually, TV scripts and screenplays.

In later years, science-fiction writers turned to acronyms like “GAFIA” — getting away from it all — as one of the reasons readers of all kinds are drawn to science fiction in troubled times, science fiction in the Utopian sense of space exploration, and not necessarily the dystopian novels of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, and their philosophical successors J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick.

This is all very instructive now because, in a year that in many respects marks a low point for humanity, remarkable things have been happening in the worlds of outer space, living reminders that planet Earth is just one tiny speck in a very large universe.

It wasn’t just last month’s 50th anniversary of the Voyager spacecraft or NASA’s Cassini mission to explore Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s moons, but recent revelations — just in the past few weeks — of the Hubble Space Telescope.

 ©NASA-Hubble

©NASA-Hubble

Hubble was launched into low Earth orbit in 1990, and remains in operation, despite a — literally — shaky early start. Hubble is the only telescope to be examined and repaired by astronauts in space, five times so far, in shuttle missions. That’s one reason it has managed to continue boldly looking where no telescope has looked before.

As it is, the past weeks’ discoveries are only a prelude of sorts for science’s next space mission, the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in the spring of 2019. (The “Next Generation Space Telescope,” as the James Webb telescope is sometimes called, is a joint mission of NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and the Baltimore, Maryland based Space Telescope Science Institute (STSi), and will be launched into space by a European Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana in South America.)

 ©ESA-James Webb Space Telescope

©ESA-James Webb Space Telescope

That is then, though; this is now.

After 27 years in space, the Hubble Space Telescope is still sending back some of the most beautiful and revealing images from across the universe.

When we look up at the night sky, we’re getting a mere glimpse of what’s out there. There are countless — almost literally countless — galaxies humankind never knew existed, except in the imagination of science-fiction writers. Until Hubble, that is.

“I believe Hubble has been the single most transformative scientific instrument that we’ve ever built,” NASA astrophysicist Amber Straughn told 60 Minutes’ Bill Whitaker this past Sunday.

Transformative, she said, because Hubble keeps improving our understanding of the universe. 

 ©CBS News-60 Minutes

©CBS News-60 Minutes

We look at the night sky, and in patches we see nothing but darkness.

“And then, when we look at it with Hubble,” Straughn said, “what we see is thousands of galaxies.”

Not stars. Galaxies.

That was 22 years ago. Since then, Hubble has stared deeper and longer into space with enhanced technology. One recent image revealed more than 10,000 galaxies, in which every single point of light represents an individual galaxy, in Straughn’s words, “its own little island universe.”

 ©NASA-Hubble

©NASA-Hubble

What Hubble has taught us is that the universe is filled with hundreds of billions of other galaxies. The most recent results tell us there could be more than two trillion in all, 10 times more than previously thought. Typical galaxies, like our own Milky Way, are home to 100 billion stars.

In more earthbound terms, according to the Nobel Prize winning astrophysicist Adam Riess, there are more stars in the visible universe than there are grains of sand on every beach on Earth taken together. Hubble has changed what we know about the universe, its structure, its age (3.8 billion years, give or take) and its evolution, from early origins to black holes and supernova explosions — quite literally, death stars.

 ©NASA-Hubble

©NASA-Hubble

In more earthbound terms, according to the Nobel Prize winning astrophysicist Adam Riess, there are more stars in the visible universe than there are grains of sand on every beach on Earth taken together. Hubble has changed what we know about the universe, its structure, its age (3.8 billion years, give or take) and its evolution, from early origins to black holes and supernova explosions — quite literally, death stars.

“Yes,” Straughn told 60 Minutes. “Space is big.”

One of the many remarkable things about Hubble’s findings is that it shows how colourful the universe is.

“Big stars, when they die, they explode and send their contents into the surrounding universe,” Straughn said. “And these contents are what seed future stars and future planets and help to seed life, ultimately. The iron in your blood and the calcium in your bones was literally forged inside of a star that ended its life like this. We literally are stardust. We are viscerally made of the stars.”

That’s a striking image. And its images like that which make today’s news events pale in comparison.