This beautiful new image from the Hubble Space Telescope is allowing astronomers to peer further back in time than ever before. Called the eXtreme Deep Field, it reveals galaxies that existed as far back as 13.2 billion years ago – that’s only 500 million years after the Big Bang, a wink of the eye in cosmological terms.
Taken over a small area of space in the Fornax constellation, the kaleidoscopic photo is a veritable treasure trove for galaxy hunters. Spectacular spiral galaxies like our own Milky Way exist alongside fuzzy red galaxies where stars no longer form. Also dotted around the photo are faint galactic ‘seedlings’ like those from which today’s great galaxies grew.
To make the image, Hubble focused on a tiny patch of space, collecting light over hours of observations. The final photo, assembled from more than 2,000 images taken over the past decade, has a total exposure time of 2 million seconds. Astronomers have counted 5,500 galaxies in this small snippet of the cosmos alone, each containing millions or billions of stars.
The eXtreme Deep Field is an update of Hubble’s previous cosmic vistas – 1995’s iconic Deep Field image and the Ultra-Deep Field photo taken in 2003-2004. The next update will most likely come from Hubble’s successor: the James Webb Space Telescope. Scheduled to launch in 2018, this telescope will use sensitive infrared instruments to detect red-shifted light from even younger galaxies, allowing us to look yet further back in time. It’ll be the next best thing to building a time machine and travelling back to the Big Bang itself.