From Here To Infinity

By Phil Plait | October 22, 2012 7:00 am

Looking up into the night sky, it seems like you can see forever. If you use binoculars or a telescope that feeling is, literally, magnified – you can see thousands, millions of stars.

But what you’re seeing is barely scratching the depths of the Universe. You’re looking out a few thousand light years into a galaxy a hundred thousand light years across, in a Universe where we can see distant galaxies over 10 billion light years away.

We build bigger telescopes so we can see those far-flung objects, and we even put them in space so our bothersome atmosphere doesn’t interfere with the view. The most famous is of course the Hubble Space Telescope. It’s hard to describe just how much of an impact this Grande Dame of astronomy has had on our perception of the Universe… though looking into the Hubble Deep Fields, you get a glimmer of it. In 1995, Hubble stared at one spot in space for over 140 hours, creating the first Deep Field. It revealed thousands of galaxies at tremendous distance, showing us that the sky is filled with galaxies.

The region of the sky for the first Deep Field was chosen because it was nearly devoid of stars and known galaxies, objects that would interfere with their more distant brethren. But what does that field look like from the ground? Astronomer Detlef Hartmann decided to tackle this question, and has done us all a favor by showing us. Using a 44 cm (17") telescope he built himself, he took an incredible 247 five-minute images to create this extraordinary picture with a total of 20 hours of exposure… and then lets it morph into the actual Hubble Deep Field to compare them:

[The image is an animated GIF that weighs in at nearly 6 Mb, so it may take a while to load. I urge patience; it’s worth it. Click to edwinenate.]

Holy. Wow.

Let me be clear: Detlef’s image is amazing. It’s a tremendous effort by an "amateur"*, and shows dozens of the galaxies (and the same scattered handful of stars) in the Hubble image. It’s an amazing achievement. A bigger telescope would show more galaxies, of course, and resolve them more clearly, but even the biggest telescope located on the surface of our planet needs to peer through the soup of air above it, which dims the faintest galaxies into obscurity. You need to get above our atmosphere to see the cosmos as clearly as possible.

And when you do, look at what Hubble shows us. That tiny region of the sky – easily blocked by a grain of sand held at arm’s length – contains thousands of galaxies, each a sprawling city of billions of stars. It represents a relatively random part of the sky, so you can expect to see something like it no matter where you point a telescope… and that picture shows just one 24-millionth of the entire sky.

The implication is clear: there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in our Universe. That in turn means there are sextillions of stars, each a Sun, and many, if not most, circled by a retinue of planets.

It’s the most ironic aspect of any science I know: it crushes my sense of scale and ego into dust, but also fills me with wonder and amazement that we can know such things, and be a part of it.

As is so often the case in science, you don’t know what you’ll get when you build a new instrument. You build it for one reason or for many, but later on new applications arise, new ways to use it. And sometimes, years down the road, it’s utilized in a just such a new way which profoundly changes how you see the Universe, how you see yourself and your place in it, and in a way you had may have only had an inkling of when you started out. The Hubble Deep Fields are perfect examples of this.

We knew intellectually the Universe was deep, and our place in it infinitesimal yet rare and beautiful. But Hubble showed that to us.

Image credits: R. Williams (STScI), the Hubble Deep Field Team and NASA; Detlef Hartmann. My deep thanks to Salvatore Iovene (who hosts AstroBin where Detlef’s image is displayed) for letting me know about this amazing work.

* Oh, that word. Detlef built his own ‘scope, took hundreds of these images, then combined them in a painstaking and difficult process that probably took him many, many hours. The word "amateur" has many connotations, but as usual here when I use it, I simply mean someone who is not a career astronomer. Detlef clearly has it going on.

Related Posts:

Revealing the Universe: the Hubble Extreme Deep Field
BAFact Math: The Sun is mind-crushingly brighter than the faintest object ever seen. Seriously.
Another record breaker: ultra-deep image reveals ultra-distant galaxy
What does a half million galaxies look like?
Hubble digs deep to see baby galaxies


Comments (23)

  1. DanM

    And just how often does one get to say “sextillions” in casual conversation? A very satisfying image indeed.

  2. John

    First time commenter but this post is worth it. I’m a high school physics teacher so at least once per year per class I get the “why do I need to study physics?” This year I used the Hubble Deep Field photo to explain the newness of science and the scale of universe in response to that question. The idea was a hit and we spent a little more time than we should have cruising through NASA’s web site.

    p.s. This quote will be going on my board. Thanks.
    “it crushes my sense of scale and ego into dust, but also fills me with wonder and amazement that we can know such things, and be a part of it.”

  3. If the universe contains much more visible baryonic matter, as galaxies, than assumed, what does that do to total dark matter content given its jury-rigged galactic Tully-Fisher relationship curve fit? What does it do to dark energy-driven accelerating expansion? A magnificent example of elegant, rigorous, and above all voluminous mathematics is an empirical blow, er, out – macroeconomics. Physics must be better than economics as observation accrues. Physics must be predictive not reactive.

  4. Inajira

    Sokath – his eyes uncovered.

  5. solarspace

    he built his own telescope … hes an ‘amateur’.

    how did he … oh boy… wow. just wow.

    the picture and accompanying backstory make me feel both very small and very dumb.

  6. ctj

    one can now easily imagine a new project in crowd-sourced astronomy: sign up with your own “amateur” telescope and pick a tiny “dark” spot in the sky, and construct your own deep field. who knows what we could find!

  7. Pete Jackson

    The largest ground-based telescopes, such as the Kecks, can still make a significant contribution since their enormous ‘light buckets’ can collect enough light from one of these faint blobs to do significant spectral analysis so as to learn the distances, masses, chemical compositions, ages etc.
    The Hubble images, of course, can show us which galaxies to observe, and ones that are isolated so that their light does not blend in with neighboring galaxies in the sky when being analyzed by the ground-based scopes.

  8. Blathering Blathiscope

    I love this photo for the same reason Phil gives. I have a copy of the Hubble deep field on my system that I like to look at when I start to think I’m getting a bit too big for my britches, as they say.

    The HDF never fails to bring me back down to size.

    I also like to think about how much life there must be probably is in that sand grain speck of sky. Thousands of hundreds of billions of stars, planets, moons. Life we will never meet, never know, never hear or touch. Or there are Van Neuman machines racing towards our oblivion.

    We best start building that Mckay/Carter intergalactic Gate Bridge in the opposite direction of the oncoming hoard. Whichever way that way is.

  9. Woodman

    Inajira, love the reference.

    Can’t wait until the Webb telescope comes online. Hubble will always hold a special place in astronomy, but Webb’s discoveries are going to change everything.

  10. ian

    Incredible picture. I think hobbyist would be a good alternative to amateur. Plenty of hobbyists went on to become notable figures in science.

  11. shunt1

    That is the most amazing image I have ever seen from an amateur astronomer. I am simply stunned!

    I wish they could invent a new term. Words like “hobbyist” and “amateur” simply do not represent the amazing ability to reproduce professional quality data with very limited budgets.

  12. Jeremy

    I prefer “independently funded astronomer” instead of amateur…

  13. Peter Davey

    It should not be forgotten that the term “amateur” is derived from the Latin word for love, referring to someone who does what they do for love of that particular interest.

    “amor vincit omnia” – love conquers all things, including, hopefully, the limitations of your receiving equipment.

  14. Chris

    I wonder how long it’ll be before an “amateur” puts adaptive optics on their telescope.

  15. Russell

    If we built an even larger Hubble Telescope and looked at that same bit of space would we peer back farther beyond what we see in this image? Is there more beyond this and we can’t see it? Or is that “it” “the end”, “fineto”, blahh…?

  16. @#15 Russell: If we built an even larger Hubble Telescope and looked at that same bit of space would we peer back farther beyond what we see in this image? Is there more beyond this and we can’t see it? Or is that “it” “the end”, “fineto”, blahh…?

    There IS more to see! That’s the hope for the James Webb Space Telescope, anyway. Besides having a mirror area much greater than that of the Hubble, it also operates in the infrared, meaning that it can see through gas and dust, as well as resolve visible and UV light that’s been red-shifted by extreme distance. Theoretically, yes, there is a maximum distance beyond which the expansion of the universe makes it impossible to see. We’re not quite there yet, but it’s hoped that the JWST will let us see just about that far :)

  17. Cosmonut

    @15 Russell: Our view into the universe is limited by time rather than space.

    While the Hubble deep field looks back about 10 billion light years, the most distant thing we can “see” is the cosmic microwave background radiation which is about 13.7 billion light years away.
    I say “see” because all the light has been redshifted to microwave radiation.

    This doesn’t mean that this is where the universe ends. If we could teleport to where the background radiation is coming from – we’d see a view very similar to our own with galaxies stretching for tens of billions of light years in all directions…

  18. Jon Hanford

    Chris (14),

    “I wonder how long it’ll be before an “amateur” puts adaptive optics on their telescope.”

    AO have been available to amateurs for years. Here’s a 1999 paper on AO for amateurs:

    Some commercial AO systems for amateurs: (for guiding) (for imaging)

    More AO systems are available (hint: google adaptive optic for amateurs).

  19. @18 Jon Hanford: To be fair, those appear to only correct for tip and tilt (as opposed to aberrations like astigmatism or defocusing). They’re quite impressive all the same, I mean – that one paper makes a very good case that that’s pretty much all you need for planetary observation.
    Still, when I think of adaptive optics, I think of mirrors being deformed with actuators, laser guide stars, fancy stuff like that :)

  20. That. is . Breath-takingly. Impressive! :-0

    Superluminous (beyond merely brilliant)work Detlef Hartmann thanks and cheers BA for sharing this. 8)

  21. Infinite123Lifer

    To infinity? Well, at least you didn’t go beyond 😉


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