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Hubble’s Guide to Viewing Deep Fields

Hubble’s Guide to Viewing Deep Fields

Hubble’s Guide to Viewing Deep Fields

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but no images have left a greater impact on our understanding of the universe quite like the Hubble Space Telescope’s deep fields. Like time machines, these iconic images transport humanity billions of light-years back in time, offering a glimpse into the early universe and insight into galaxy evolution!

Hubble’s Guide to Viewing Deep Fields

You’ve probably seen these images before, but what exactly do we see within them? Deep field images are basically core samples of our universe. By peering into a small portion of the night sky, we embark on a journey through space and time as thousands of galaxies appear before our very eyes.

So, how can a telescope the size of a school bus orbiting 340 miles above Earth uncover these mind-boggling galactic masterpieces? We’re here to break it down. Here’s Hubble’s step-by-step guide to viewing deep fields:

Step 1: Aim at the darkness

Believe it or not, capturing the light of a thousand galaxies actually begins in the dark. To observe extremely faint galaxies in the farthest corners of the cosmos, we need minimal light interference from nearby stars and other celestial objects. The key is to point Hubble’s camera at a dark patch of sky, away from the outer-edge glow of our own galaxy and removed from the path of our planet, the Sun, or the Moon. This “empty” black canvas of space will eventually transform into a stunning cosmic mosaic of galaxies.

Hubble’s Guide to Viewing Deep Fields

The first deep field image was captured in 1995. In order to see far beyond nearby galaxies, Hubble’s camera focused on a relatively empty patch of sky within the constellation Ursa Major. The results were this step-shaped image, an extraordinary display of nearly 3,000 galaxies spread across billions of light-years, featuring some of the earliest galaxies to emerge shortly after the big bang.

Step 2: Take it all in

The universe is vast, and peering back billions of years takes time. Compared to Hubble’s typical exposure time of a few hours, deep fields can require hundreds of hours of exposure over several days. Patience is key. Capturing and combining several separate exposures allows astronomers to assemble a comprehensive core slice of our universe, providing key information about galaxy formation and evolution. Plus, by combining exposures from different wavelengths of light, astronomers are able to better understand galaxy distances, ages, and compositions.

Hubble’s Guide to Viewing Deep Fields

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field is the deepest visible-light portrait of our universe. This astonishing display of nearly 10,000 galaxies was imaged over the course of 400 Hubble orbits around Earth, with a total of 800 exposures captured over 11.3 days.

Step 3: Go beyond what’s visible

The ability to see across billions of light-years and observe the farthest known galaxies in our universe requires access to wavelengths beyond those visible to the human eye. The universe is expanding and light from distant galaxies is stretched far across space, taking a long time to reach us here on Earth. This  phenomenon, known as “redshift,” causes longer wavelengths of light to appear redder the farther they have to travel through space. Far enough away, and the wavelengths will be stretched into infrared light. This is where Hubble’s infrared vision comes in handy. Infrared light allows us to observe light from some of the earliest galaxies in our universe and better understand the history of galaxy formation over time.

Hubble’s Guide to Viewing Deep Fields

In 2009, Hubble observed the Ultra Deep Field in the infrared. Using the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer, astronomers gathered one of the deepest core samples of our universe and captured some of the most distant galaxies ever observed.

Step 4: Use your time machine

Apart from their remarkable beauty and impressive imagery, deep field images are packed with information, offering astronomers a cosmic history lesson billions of years back in time within a single portrait. Since light from distant galaxies takes time to reach us, these images allow astronomers to travel through time and observe these galaxies as they appear at various stages in their development. By observing Hubble’s deep field images, we can begin to discover the questions we’ve yet to ask about our universe.

Hubble’s Guide to Viewing Deep Fields

Credit: NASA, ESA, R. Bouwens and G. Illingworth (University of California, Santa Cruz)

Hubble’s deep field images observe galaxies that emerged as far back as the big bang. This image of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field showcases 28 of over 500 early galaxies from when the universe was less than one billion years old. The light from these galaxies represent different stages in their evolution as their light travels through space to reach us.

Step 5: Expand the cosmic frontier

Hubble’s deep fields have opened a window to a small portion of our vast universe, and future space missions will take this deep field legacy even further. With advancements in technologies and scientific instruments, we will soon have the ability to further uncover the unimaginable.

Hubble’s Guide to Viewing Deep Fields
Hubble’s Guide to Viewing Deep Fields

Slated for launch in late 2021, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will offer a new lens to our universe with its impressive infrared capabilities. Relying largely on the telescope’s mid-infrared instrument, Webb will further study portions of the Hubble deep field images in greater detail, pushing the boundaries of the cosmic frontier even further.

And there you have it, Hubble’s guide to unlocking the secrets of the cosmos! To this day, deep field images remain fundamental building blocks for studying galaxy formation and deepening not only our understanding of the universe, but our place within it as well.

Still curious about Hubble Deep Fields? Explore more and follow along on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram with #DeepFieldWeek!

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