Hubble’s latest image is another stunner — and just look at all the galaxies! Hubble has produced a new version of the Ultra Deep Field, this time in near-infrared light and taken with the newly installed Wide Field Camera 3. This is the deepest image yet of the Universe in near-infrared, and so the faintest and reddest objects in the image are likely the oldest galaxies ever identified, and they likely formed only 600–900 million years after the Big Bang. This image was taken in the same region as the visible Ultra Deep Field in 2004, but this new deep view at longer wavelengths provides insights into how galaxies grew in their formative years early in the Universe’s history.
“Hubble has now re-visited the Ultra Deep Field which we first studied 5 years ago, taking infrared images which are more sensitive than anything obtained before,” said Dr. Daniel Stark, a postdoctoral researcher from Cambridge University. “We can now look even further back in time, identifying galaxies when the Universe was only 5 percent of its current age – within 1 billion years of the Big Bang.”
The image was taken during a total of four days in August 2009, with 173,000 seconds of total exposure time. Since infrared light is invisible to the human eye and therefore does not have colors that can be perceived, the image is a “natural” representation that in shorter infrared wavelengths are represented as blue and the longer wavelengths as red. The faintest objects are about one billion times fainter than the dimmest visible objects seen with the naked eye.
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“The expansion of the Universe causes the light from very distant galaxies to appear more red, so having a new camera on Hubble which is very sensitive in the infrared means we can identify galaxies at much greater distances than previously possible,” said Stephen Wilkins, from Oxford University.
The team that took this image in August of 2009 have made it available for research by astronomers worldwide, and a multitude of astronomers have been furiously searching through the data for the most distant galaxies yet discovered. In just three months, twelve scientific papers on these new data have been submitted.
As well as identifying potentially the most distant objects yet, these new HST observations present an intriguing puzzle. “We know the gas between galaxies in the Universe was ionized (or fried) early in history, but the total light from these new galaxies may not be sufficient to achieve this,” said Andrew Bunker, from the University of Oxford.
“These new observations from HST are likely to be the most sensitive images Hubble will ever take, but the very distant galaxies we have now discovered will be studied in detail by Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be launched in 2014,” said Professor Jim Dunlop at the University of Edinburgh.