Photographs recently taken by the Hubble telescope show the deepest view into the universe ever, NASA scientists say. The eXtreme Deep Field photo, which required combining years of data and images, is a beautiful view of some of the farthest reaches of the universe.
And in an odd, time-bending way, some of the components of these photographs show scientists and the public what areas of the universe used to look like shortly after the Big Bang. Because of the gigantically wide distances between Hubble and far-off galaxies, we see what the galaxies looked like years ago. With some of them, that means we’re seeing what they looked like billions of years ago.
It’s more than a little trippy, but the gorgeous photographs hold up on their own, displaying whirling stars and galaxies of a whole multitude of colors and shapes. Some of them look like our home Milky Way, while others are red and fuzzy, which means that the stars were dying.
Between 2003 and 2004, the Hubble telescope took a series of images that became the original Hubble Ultra Deep Field. The camera was pointed at just a tiny patch of space somewhere in the constellation Fornax. The exposure time was a lengthy 1 million seconds. The resulting photographs displayed thousands and thousands of galaxies and were the deepest view of the universe yet.
The latest pictures are even deeper because the exposure time was increased to 2 million seconds (or a little more than three Earth weeks). Even though the field of view was smaller, Hubble picked up an extra 5,500 galaxies. Some of these dim objects are a ten-billionth the brightness a human eye can detect.
Scientists believe the universe is 13.7 billion years old and these latest images reach 13.2 billion years into the past.
How is this possible? How can astronomers see stuff that happened before the Earth was even around?
Many of the galaxies in the images appear to be young or growing and shaping up in often violent ways. These galaxies are so far away from us that the light from their initial developments is just reaching our Solar System (and, therefore, the cameras on the Hubble telescope) right now.
Scientists will launch the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018, which they hope will reach closer to the birth of the universe. With infrared sensitive cameras, this telescope will push even deeper into the universe and, therefore, the past.