Lots of really awesome images from the depths of space this week, starting with images from the refurbished Hubble Space Telescope.

Granted a new lease on life courtesy of it’s recent retrofit, the venerable observatory showed everyone that it’s still got what it takes. Check out images of stars being born inside the Carina Nebula and a close up of the super dense Omega Centauri star cluster at HubbleSite.

The relative new kid on the block, NASA’s Swift satellite, is no slouch either though. This week it sent back a┬átruly spectacular mosaic image of the Andromeda galaxy, giving us the most complete view so far of our nearest neighbor, galactically speaking.

Not to be cut out of the act, Esa’s Planck observatory has started strutting it’s stuff this week as well, sending back thermal images of the oldest light in the universe which are important to our understanding of the cosmos, if a little yawn inducing aesthetically.

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It’s always nice to see an amateur science enthusiast lay claim to their fifteen minutes of fame. There’s just something heartwarming about knowing that even with the world of science becoming more and more advanced and more and more specialized, there’s still room for someone with a little bit of equipment, a healthy curiosity about the world around them and a liberal dose of free time on their hands to discover something worthwhile.

With that in mind, we welcome Frank Melillo of Holtsville, New York to the limelight. Melillo is the dilettante stargazer who called the attention of astronomers around the world to a huge bright mark now visible in the clouds surrounding the planet Venus.

Data from the ESA’s Venus Express probe suggests that the spot appeared several day before it was spotted from Earth, And that it has been expanding since. This sort of mark in the less than stable cloud cover surrounding Venus isn’t necessarily unusual, but the scale of it is.

Some researchers speculate the marks are created by volcanic eruptions on the surface of the planet, as opposed to the dark mark that has recently been made on Jupiter by a comet collision. But to affect the atmosphere like it has, this most recent bright spot would have had to be one doozy of an eruption.

More new images from Herschel Space Observatory have arrived, and you can check out the whole spread at their website here. They aren’t as impressive as the last composite of the M51 Whirlpool Galaxy, but for images that still represent rough drafts of the data we can eventually hope to see after the equipment on board the probe is fully calibrated, they’re exceptionally promising.

Though something less than breathtaking aesthetically, these shots do give Herschel a chance to flex it’s analytical muscle. Each image is more than just a still photo of celestial objects like the Cat’s Eye Nebula. The observatory also provides important data on their physical properties and chemical composition by taking photos of objects at specific wavelengths.

A recent Twitter post alluding to failed activities and urgent re-planning aside, calibration on Herschel seems to be going swimmingly, with results so far exceeding researchers expectations. Scientists at the European Space Agency are sanguine that they will have the observatory running at full speed shortly, and hope to have new scientific results courtesy of the data the craft will provide before the end of 2009.

The first images from the European Union’s fancy new Herschel Space Observatory have arrived, and ahead of schedule no less.

Scientists working with the project have made the announcement with caveats attached, reminding the public that the Herschel and it’s Photoconductor Array Camera and Spectrometer are new tools, and will take some adjusting before they’re properly tuned. Of course, this makes the Observatory’s first glimpses of the Whirlpool Galaxy (that’s M51, if you’re feeling nasty) all the more impressive for being essentially rough drafts. They’ve also provided side by side comparisons of the new Herschel images and images of the same galaxy taken by NASA’a Spitzer space telescope, along with the following statement:

The obvious advantage of the larger size of the telescope is clearly reflected in the much higher resolution of the image: Herschel reveals structures that cannot be discerned in the Spitzer image.

Herschel has certainly earned it’s bragging rights here, having accomplished the difficult task of making what was once a state of the art photograph of the unsurpassed glory of deep space and the majesty of the universe look like a total piece of crap. But it’s hard not to see the statement as a sort of kicking a space agency when it’s down. Pieces are actively falling off the Hubble like my grandmother’s Oldsmobile. This week brought a reminder that the remaining fleet of space shuttles is held together mostly by duct tape, spit and happy thoughts. And American astronauts are faced with the prospect of calling up Russia every time they need a ride to the ISS anytime in the nest five years. With all this taken into consideration, it’s not as if NASA needed another reminder of it’s inadeqacies. But hey, there it is.