Space image records 15 billion years

Gazing into the beginning of time
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The Independent Online


What you can see above stretches the power of human comprehension to its limit. This photograph shows the universe near the moment of its creation.

The picture - the latest taken by the Hubble Space Telescope - amazed delegates at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society in San Antonio this week.

Light from the brightest galaxies took about 5 billion years to reach the Earth. Light from the dimmest set off about 12-15 billion years ago - around the time when the universe was formed.

It would take 300,000 years to cross the frame of this picture in a spaceship travelling at 10 times the speed of light. It shows 1,500 galaxies in various stages of formation. The images are so faint that they have never been seen before - the eye would need to be 4 billion times more powerful to perceive them.

And it may hold the answer to the question that has perplexed astronomers for generations: how do galaxies form?

Each speck or swirl of light is a galaxy containing up to 100 billion suns all streaming away from the Earth at 19,000 miles per second.

"As the images have come up on our screens, we have not been able to keep from wondering if we might somehow be seeing our own origins in all of this," Robert E Williams, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, said.

"The past 10 days have been an unbelievable experience."

The photograph - which is the result of a single exposure in which the camera shutter was kept open for 10 days - focuses on an area which seen from the Earth was about the size of a large grain of sand held at arm's length. The camera was directed at a point in the sky near the handle of the Plough, a part of the universe continuously in view of the orbiting telescope.

The result has forced Hubble astronomers to abandon the language of scientific precision and to speak only of "wonderment". It is a collection of "things we haven't seen before", Andrew S Fruchter, another Hubble team member, said. There are elliptical shapes and spirals. Some are like beach balls and footballs. Others are long cigar-shaped clusters of stars.

The images may hold the answer to the enigma of how the existing galaxies came into being. These star groups are found throughout the universe but astronomers so far do not understand how many billions of stars can come together to form a single cluster like the Milky Way, a spiral galaxy that includes Earth's sun.

"Galaxies are not forming at the present," Mr Williams said. "They seem to have formed a long time ago. Exactly how they formed is a mystery."

The image is the fruit of a year of planning. Astronomers processed 342 frames photographed between 18 and 28 December to form a single image of deep space known as the Hubble Deep Field image. It reveals 2,000 galaxies, each containing up to 100 billion stars. Experts now face years of work analysing the detail of what the camera has captured.

An infra-red camera scheduled to be installed in the Hubble Space Telescope in 1997 as a joint project of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the European Space Agency will search for even more distant galaxies.