International Year of Astronomy 2009

A Glimpse of the Early Universe



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Galaxy at the edge of forever



  • Having the appearance of a night time blizzard, the Subaru Deep Field image captured several hundred local stars and over 200,000 distant galaxies in a view that stretches back to a glimpse of the very young universe.

    See a large scale image here.
  • Photo credit: Subaru telescope, National Astronomical Observatory of Japan &
    R. Jay GaBany- Cosmotography.com
  • The highlighted dot is actually one of the farthest galaxies yet discovered by direct observation- almost 13 billion light years from Earth.
  • Photo credit: Subaru telescope, National Astronomical Observatory of Japan &
    R. Jay GaBany- Cosmotography.com
The data catalogs of exposures compiled during the SDF project were finally released for full public inspection and independent analysis during November 2004. So far, the SDF project has generated over thirty scientific papers (twelve are listed here ). To the delight of the research team, one of the earliest findings announced the identification of one of the farthest known galaxies- an early star system 12.88 billion light years from Earth!

Since we know that light takes time to travel, we also understand that spotting a galaxy 12.88 billion light years in the distance means we are also looking almost 13 billion years into the past! Therefore, this discovery provided a glimpse of the Universe only 780 million years following the Big Bang- an epoch when all of the matter and time in the Universe suddenly went through a rapid and violent expansion from a source, many speculate, that was smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. So, the seemingly insignificant ruddy dot highlighted in the accompanying picture actually provides a peek at one of the first galaxies.

  • To avoid the glare of bright stars and the obscuration of interstellar dust clouds, astronomers targeted an unremarkable part of the northern sky, between the constellations of Coma Berenices and Bootes, that appeared relatively vacant.
  • Photo credit: National Astronomical Observatory of Japan
Interestingly, even though the researchers chose a small portion of the firmament that's noticeably vacant of bright, naked-eye stars, the long exposure image, nonetheless, captured a few hundred (millions of times closer) stars that reside within our own Milky Way galaxy. These form a thin intervening curtain when we peer out into the everlasting beyond our home star system.

You can spot the local luminaries by their large size and round, colorful halos. However, everything else in the picture, from the sanguine blue curlicue shapes to the smallest, most insignificant pin points are, each one, a galaxy- enormous islands of stars, like individual Universes, each separated from the other by distances so vast that even traveling at the speed of light would require a journey time spanning the collective lifetime of an entire species. Each of the points presented in this picture contains hundreds of billions of suns! The only reason for their diminutive appearance is because they are astonishingly distant! Click here for a large scale image.

Although slightly more distant galactic candidates have been recently identified, their discovery required the assistance of gravitational lensing from a galaxy cluster- an optical phenomenon predicted by Einstein's Theory of Relativity. For example, the gravity from a massive object (such as a galaxy cluster or black hole) can warp space and time, bending everything in it - including the paths followed by light rays from a bright background source. This alters the time taken for the light to reach an observer. The result can both magnify and distort the observer's view image of the background source.

Other extremely distant signals continue to be detected such as a gamma ray burst. reported in late April 2009, located about 13 billion light years in the distance.

Subaru's Deep Field picture does not feature a serendipitous alignment of massive objects nor does it capture myterious gamma ray bursts. It represents one of the clearest, deepest picture covering the greatest sky area of the very early Universe yet produced from the surface of our planet or an orbiting spacecraft.   
  • The Subaru Deep Field image is part of an exhibition called Discover the Universe taking place in Oslo, Norway between April and June, 2009.
  • Photo credit: Discover the Universe


This rendition of the Subaru Deep Field image uses only a portion of the data that the research team collected. For aesthetic purposes, only the three of the six filter channels with the highest signal were included.


Discover the Universe, Oslo, Norway

The image was prepared with the generous permission of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan at the request of the organizers of the Discover the Universe exhibition taking place April through June, 2009 in Oslo, Norway. The author wishes to thank those who made his participation in this Year of Astronomy 2009 event possible- particularly Jan-Erik Ovaldsen, the acclaimed Norwegian astrophysicist, published author and astronomy evangelist and the administrators of the Subaru Observatory.


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