Hubble's "eXtreme Deep Field." Click to enlarge. (Image: NASA; ESA; G. Illingworth, D. Magee and P. Oesch, University of California Santa Cruz; R. Bouwens, Leiden University; and the HUDF09 Team)
Thanks to a 10-year photo shoot by the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have produced an image that NASA calls "mankind's deepest-ever view of the universe." Named the eXtreme Deep Field (XDF), it contains about 5,500 galaxies, most of which are pictured as relative infants since their light takes eons to reach Earth.
Some of the galaxies are up to 13.2 billion years old — just a few hundred million years younger than the universe itself — so the XDF is like a psychedelic postcard from the distant past. It shows a wide variety of galaxies at different ages and stages of development, including spirals similar to our Milky Way and red, fuzzy regions where new stars are no longer forming. "The history of galaxies," NASA explains in a statement, "is laid out in this one remarkable image."
The XDF is an update of the original Hubble Ultra Deep Field (HUDF), which was created from the telescope's exhaustive observations of the Fornax constellation back in 2003 and 2004. The HUDF revealed thousands of galaxies both near and far, far away, qualifying it at the time as our deepest peek into the universe's abyss.
But even though the full-color XDF focuses on a smaller field of view — a patch of sky NASA compares to "a small fraction of the angular diameter of the full moon" (see image below) — it manages to cram in even more galaxies than the HUDF did.
A NASA illustration comparing the angular size of the XDF field to the angular size of the full moon. (Image: NASA; ESA; Z. Levay, STScI; T. Rector; I. Dell'Antonio/NOAO/AURA/NSF)
"The XDF is the deepest image of the sky ever obtained and reveals the faintest and most distant galaxies ever seen," says Garth Illingworth, principal investigator of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field 2009 program, in a statement from NASA. "XDF allows us to explore further back in time than ever before."
As cool as the XDF is, though, NASA is far from finished ogling at oblivion. Hubble has been toiling in orbit for more than two decades, and the agency plans to replace it in a few years with the James Webb Space Telescope, which will use infrared vision to find even fainter galaxies — revealing, as NASA puts it, a time when the first stars and galaxies "filled the early 'dark ages' of the universe with light."
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