Like photographers assembling a portfolio of best shots, astronomers have assembled a new, improved portrait of mankind's deepest-ever view of the universe. Called the eXtreme Deep Field, or XDF, the photo was assembled by combining 10 years of NASA Hubble Space Telescope photographs taken of a patch of sky at the center of the original Hubble Ultra Deep Field (HUDF). (Learn more about HUDF, in the Gallery.) The XDF is a small fraction of the angular diameter of the full Moon (see Video 3, on this page).
The Hubble Ultra Deep Field is an image of a small area of space in the southern constellation Fornax, created using Hubble Space Telescope data from 2003 and 2004. By collecting faint light over many hours of observation, it revealed thousands of galaxies, both nearby and very distant, making it the deepest image of the universe ever taken at that time.
The new full-color XDF image, released in September 2012, reaches much fainter galaxies, and includes very deep exposures in red light from Hubble's new infrared camera, the Wide Field Camera 3. These exposures enable new studies of the earliest galaxies in the universe. The XDF contains about 5,500 galaxies even within its smaller field of view. The faintest galaxies are one ten-billionth the brightness of what the human eye can see.
Magnificent spiral galaxies similar in shape to our Milky Way and the neighboring Andromeda galaxy appear in this image, as do the large, fuzzy red galaxies where the formation of new stars has ceased. These red galaxies are the remnants of dramatic collisions between galaxies and are in their declining years. Peppered across the field are tiny, faint, more distant galaxies that were like the seedlings from which today's striking galaxies grew. The history of galaxies — from soon after the first galaxies were born to the great galaxies of today, like our Milky Way — is laid out in this one remarkable image.
"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," said Garth Illingworth of the University of California at Santa Cruz, principal investigator of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field 2009 program.
The infrared vision of NASA's planned James Webb Space Telescope (Webb telescope) will also be aimed at the XDF. The Webb telescope will find even fainter galaxies that existed when the universe was just a few hundred million years old. Because of the expansion of the universe, light from the distant past is stretched into longer, infrared wavelengths. The Webb telescope's infrared vision is ideally suited to push the XDF even deeper, into a time when the first stars and galaxies formed and filled the early "dark ages" of the universe with light.
Mouse over the image and scroll to zoom in and out, or use the blue buttons that appear in the lower right corner of the image.