Pushing the boundaries of space and time, the newest camera loaded onto the Hubble Telescope has peered into deepest space and captured a cache of previously invisible galaxies more than 13 billion light-years away.
That means we are seeing back in time more than 13 billion years, or 95 percent of the way back to the big bang.
Astronomers got this image by focusing the "wide field 3" camera on one tiny, relatively empty spot in the sky for four days. Over time, as more photons reached Hubble's mirror, this black spot filled in with galaxies billions of light-years away.
Astronomers focused on the same spot in 2004 to capture a previous "deep field" image. As spectacular as that was, it missed some of the earliest, most distant galaxies because their light had been distorted out of the visible range and into the infrared. But infrared is visible to this new camera, installed by space shuttle astronauts last spring.
Since we can't see infrared, the astronomers added false colors to reflect the relative range of wavelengths they observed.
"We're looking back very close to when galaxies started to form," said astronomer Garth Illingworth of Lick Observatory in Santa Cruz, Calif. These images reach back more than 13 billion years, he said, while the universe is thought to be about 13.7 billion years old.
The new image gives a window on an earlier epoch when the universe was full of small, compact galaxies much different from the giant pinwheel of stars that is our Milky Way. The observations may fill in the story of how our present universe took shape from the chaos of the big bang.
Astronomers expect that with the launch of the orbiting James Webb telescope in 2014, they will peer back even closer to the big bang. What do they expect to see there? "Nobody knows," Illingworth said. - Faye Flam