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Telescope Captures Earliest Photo Yet Of Universe

This just released Hubble photo shows the universe at the earliest age scientists have seen yet, just 600 million to 800 million years after the Big Bang. Hubble Telescope/NASA hide caption

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Hubble Telescope/NASA

This just released Hubble photo shows the universe at the earliest age scientists have seen yet, just 600 million to 800 million years after the Big Bang.

Hubble Telescope/NASA

The upgraded Hubble Telescope continues to provide astonishing new glimpses of ever earlier stages of the universe.

Scientists on Tuesday unveiled what they say is a photo of the universe captured at its earliest stage of development yet. The photo shows the universe 600 million to 800 million after the Big Bang.

According to scientists the photo, which combines an August 2009 infrared image taken by the Hubble with an optical image taken in 2004, reveals galaxies never seen before. Scientists can tell from the characteristics that the galaxies were relatively young, nearly primordial, when the light from them that Hubble recently captured, escaped those stars.

The galaxies are very compact, compared with our own Milky Way, 1/20th the size to be precise, yet more evidence of their relative youthfulness at the time their light began to make the journey across the universe.

An excerpt from a NASA press release:

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has broken the distance limit for galaxies and uncovered a primordial population of compact and ultra-blue galaxies that have never been seen before.

The deeper Hubble looks into space, the farther back in time it looks, because light takes billions of years to cross the observable universe. This makes Hubble a powerful "time machine" that allows astronomers to see galaxies as they were 13 billion years ago, just 600 million to 800 million years after the Big Bang.

The data from Hubble's new infrared camera, the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3), on the Ultra Deep Field (taken in August 2009) have been analyzed by no less than five international teams of astronomers. A total of 15 papers have been submitted to date by astronomers worldwide. Some of these early results are being presented by various team members on Jan. 6, 2010, at the 215th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington, D.C.

"With the rejuvenated Hubble and its new instruments, we are now entering unchartered territory that is ripe for new discoveries," says Garth Illingworth of the University of California, Santa Cruz, leader of the survey team that was awarded the time to take the new WFC3 infrared data on the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (imaged in visible light by the Advanced Camera for Surveys in 2004). "The deepest-ever near-infrared view of the universe — the HUDF09 image — has now been combined with the deepest-ever optical image — the original HUDF (taken in 2004) — to push back the frontiers of the searches for the first galaxies and to explore their nature," Illingworth says.

Rychard Bouwens of the University of California, Santa Cruz, a member of Illingworth's team and leader of a paper on the striking properties of these galaxies, says that, "the faintest galaxies are now showing signs of linkage to their origins from the first stars. They are so blue that they must be extremely deficient in heavy elements, thus representing a population that has nearly primordial characteristics."

James Dunlop of the University of Edinburgh, agrees. "These galaxies could have roots stretching into an earlier population of stars. There must be a substantial component of galaxies beyond Hubble's detection limit."

For more Hubble photos, the newscenter at the Hubblesite has many of them.