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This image, called the Hubble eXtreme Deep Field (XDF), combines Hubble observations taken over the past decade of a small patch of sky in the constellation of Fornax. With a total of over two million seconds of exposure time, it is the deepest image of the Universe ever made, combining data from previous images including the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (taken in 2002 and 2003) and Hubble Ultra Deep Field Infrared (2009). The image covers an area less than a tenth of the width of the full Moon, making it just a 30 millionth of the whole sky. Yet even in this tiny fraction of the sky, the long exposure reveals about 5500 galaxies, some of them so distant that we see them when the Universe was less than 5% of its current age. The Hubble eXtreme Deep Field image contains several of the most distant objects ever identified. The new full-colour XDF image is even more sensitive than the original Hubble Ultra Deep Field image, thanks to the additional observations, and contains about 5500 galaxies, even within its smaller field of view. The faintest galaxies are one ten-billionth the brightness that the unaided human eye can see.
The Universe is 13.7 billion years old, and the XDF reveals galaxies that span back 13.2 billion years in time. Most of the galaxies in the XDF are seen when they were young, small, and growing, often violently as they collided and merged together. The early Universe was a time of dramatic birth for galaxies containing brilliant blue stars far brighter than our Sun. The light from those past events is just arriving at Earth now, and so the XDF is a time tunnel into the distant past when the Universe was just a fraction of its current age. The youngest galaxy found in the XDF existed just 450 million years after the Universe's birth in the Big Bang.
The NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope (Webb telescope), scheduled for launch in 2018, will be aimed at the XDF, and will study it with its infrared vision. 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.
The full resolution image weighs 2.7 MB, so please be patient when downloading!
Credit: NASA, ESA, G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch (University of California, Santa Cruz), R. Bouwens (Leiden University), and the HUDF09 Team
Image enhancement: Jean-Baptiste Faure