beauty of the cosmos

8

Images of Hubble Ultra Deep Field (the farthest we’ve ever seen into the universe) and it’s close-ups.

Astronomers, in 1996, attempted something extraordinary. They pointed the Hubble Space Telescope into a part of the sky that seemed utterly empty, a patch devoid of any planets, stars and galaxies. This area was close to the Big Dipper, a very familiar constellation. The patch of sky was no bigger than a grain of sand held out at arms length. There was a real risk that the images returned would be as black as the space at which it was being pointed. Nevertheless, they opened the telescope and slowly, over the course of 10 full days, photons that had been travelling for over 13 billion years finally ended their journey on the detector of humanity’s most powerful telescope. When the telescope was finally closed, the light from over 3,000 galaxies had covered the detector, producing one of the most profound and humbling images in all of human history - every single spot, smear, and dot was an entire galaxy, each one containing hundreds of billions of stars. 

Later, in 2004, they did it again, this time pointing the telescope toward an area near the constellation Orion. They opened the shutter for over 11 days and 400 complete orbits around the Earth. Detectors with increased sensitivity and filters that allowed more light through than ever before allowed over 10,000 galaxies to appear in what became known as the Ultra Deep Field, an image that represented the farthest we’ve ever seen into the universe.The photons from these galaxies left when the universe was only 500 million years old, and 13 billion years later, they end their long journey as a small blip on a telescope’s CCD. 

There are over 100 billion galaxies in the universe. Simply saying that number doesn’t really mean much to us because it doesn’t provide any context. Our brains have no way to accurately put that in any meaningful perspective. When we look at this image, however, and think about the context of how it was made, and really understand what it means, we instantly gain the perspective and cannot help but be forever changed by it. We pointed the most powerful telescope ever built by human beings at absolutely nothing, for no other reason than because we were curious, and discovered that we occupy a very tiny place in the heavens.