Every photograph is a miniature time machine, but only the photos in NASA’s family album can take the viewer back 13.2 billion years.
The space agency has assembled a new, more detailed version of the original Hubble Ultra Deep Field, a snapshot of a region of space in the southern constellation Fornax. The updated version, called the eXtreme Deep Field, shows around 5,500 galaxies. Some are spiral-shaped like our own Milky Way; some are fuzzy and red, showing the celestial debris from ancient collisions between galaxies.
The faintest and most distant galaxies shown in the XDF are invisible to the human eye, giving off light that is one ten-billionth the brightness of the least amount of light detectable by the human eye.
"The XDF is the deepest image of the sky ever obtained and reveals the faintest and most distant galaxies ever seen. XDF allows us to explore further back in time than ever before,” UC Santa Cruz researcher Garth Illingworth, who led a previous 2009 update of the Hubble Deep Field image, said in a statement.
The original Hubble Ultra Deep Field was created using data from the space telescope from 2003 and 2004. Researchers assembled faint light captured over many hours to build the picture. The XDF was made in a similar fashion, using data from observations made over the past decade that added up to a total of 2 million seconds of exposure time.
XDF’s view into the past is staggering, since the light it captures has spent eons traveling to Earth. One of the galaxies depicted in the new Hubble snapshot is shown as it was 450 million years after the universe began.
And NASA hopes to zoom in even closer in the next iteration of our universal portrait. While the current images make use of Hubble cameras that can capture wavelengths of light close to infrared, being able to capture true infrared light would allow scientists to see galaxies that existed just a few million years after the Big Bang.
Hubble’s successor, the planned James Webb Space Telescope, will be able to provide that vision. The project is a joint effort of NASA, the Canadian Space Agency and the European Space Agency. Currently, the telescope is set for launch on the back of a European rocket in October 2018.
So get ready for your closeup, universe!