Ethan Siegel is a theoretical astrophysicist living in Portland, Oregon, who specializes in cosmology. He has been writing about the Universe for everyone since 2008, and can’t wait for the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. A different version of this post appeared on his blog, Starts With a Bang.
“It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” —Joseph Campbell
One of the bravest things that was ever done with the Hubble Space Telescope was to find a patch of sky with absolutely nothing in it—no bright stars, no nebulae, and no known galaxies—and observe it. Not just for a few minutes, or an hour, or even for a day. But orbit-after-orbit, for a huge amount of time, staring off into the nothingness of empty space, recording image after image of pure darkness.
What would we find, out beyond the limits of what we could see? Something? Nothing? After a total of more than 11 days of observing this tiny area of the sky, this is what we found:
The Hubble Ultra Deep Field—the deepest view ever of the Universe, was the result. With all those orbits spent observing what appears to be a blank patch of sky, what we were really doing was probing the far-distant Universe, seeing beyond what any human eye—even one aided by a telescope—could ever hope to see. It took literally hundreds of thousands of seconds of observations across four separate color filters to produce these results.
What you’re seeing—in practically every point or smear of light—is an individual galaxy. The result gave us the information that a very large number of galaxies exist in a minuscule region of the sky: around 10,000 in the tiny volume surveyed by the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image, below.
Image credit: NASA, ESA, S. Beckwith (STScI) and the HUDF Team
By extrapolating these results over the entire sky (which is some 10 million times larger), we were able to figure out—at minimum—that there were at least 100 billion galaxies in the entire Universe. I even made a video about it.
But that’s not the end of the story; not by a long shot. You see, there might be at least 100 billion galaxies, based on what we’ve observed, but there might be more. Galaxies that are too dim to observe with “only” 11 days of Hubble data. Galaxies that are redshifted too far for even Hubble’s farthest infrared filter to pick up. Galaxies that might appear, if only we had the patience to look for longer.
So that’s exactly what we did, looking for a total of 23 days over the last decade—more than twice as long as the Ultra-Deep Field—in an even smaller region of space. (There are over 1,000 observing proposals submitted to Hubble every cycle, so getting that much time, even spread over a decade, is remarkable.) Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present to you the Hubble Extreme Deep Field!
In 1917, a year after his general theory of relativity was published, Einstein tried to extend his field equation of gravitation to the universe as a whole. The universe as known at the time was simply our galaxy—the neighboring Andromeda, visible to the naked eye from very dark locations, was thought to be a nebula within our own Milky Way home. Einstein’s equation told him that the universe was expanding, but astronomers assured him otherwise (even today, no expansion is evident within the 2-million-light-year range to Andromeda; in fact, that galaxy is moving toward us). So Einstein inserted into his equation a constant now known as “lambda,” for the Greek letter that denoted it. Lambda, also called “the cosmological constant,” supplied a kind of force to hold the universe from expanding and keep it stable within its range. Then in 1929, Hubble, Humason, and Slipher made their monumental discovery using the 100-inch Mount Wilson telescope in California of very distant galaxies and the fact that they were receding from us—implying that the universe was indeed expanding, just as Einstein’s original equation had indicated! When Einstein visited California some time later, Hubble showed him his findings and Einstein famously exclaimed “Then away with the cosmological constant!” and never mentioned it again, considering lambda his greatest “blunder”—it had, after all, prevented him from theoretically predicting the expansion of the universe.
Fast forward six decades to the 1990s. Saul Perlmutter, a young astrophysicist at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in California had a brilliant idea. He knew that Hubble’s results were derived using the Doppler shift in light. Light from a galaxy that is receding from us is shifted to the red end of the visible spectrum, while a galaxy that is approaching us has its light shifted to the blue end of the spectrum, from our vantage point. The degree of the shift is measured by a quantity astronomers call Z, which is then used to determines a galaxy’s speed of recession away from us (when Z is positive and shift is to the red).