Hubble Gets eXtreme

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Yes, it’s the most humbling photograph in the world. (Thanks, NASA.)

Back in the mid-1990s, NASA decided to take a risk, possibly wasting 10 days of expensive telescope time, by pointing the Hubble at a tiny region of black space that appeared to contain absolutely nothing. The region of sky they looked at was so small that it’s been compared to what you’d see looking at the sky through an 8′ soda straw. What they found when the long exposures were done was a complete surprise: Photons traveling for billions of years slammed, one by one, into Hubble’s detector to reveal something unbelievable; that minuscule black dot in the heavens contained an entire island universe with thousands of galaxies. This image was called the “Hubble Deep Field” and, over the years, NASA has continued to image this region of space. They’ve recently released the deepest, most detailed, multi-color image ever taken of the cosmos, called “eXtreme Deep Field.” (The name alone makes you want to feed-the-rush, slam-a-stack and blast Mountain Dew from a wide-mouth slam-can!) This image is a composite of over 2,000 separate pictures and comprises a total exposure time of two million seconds. Almost everything you see is a galaxy — 5,500 of them. Every dot, every smudge and each blur is a spinning collection of at least 100 billion stars. There are just a few individual stars from our own galaxy wandering through the frame. The most distant galaxies are more than 13 billion light-years away and we’re seeing them as they were at the young age of 500 million years, just 200 million years after the Big Bang.

The knowledge we are gaining from images like this is tremendous. But the impact on human consciousness is even greater. Everything we know — the Earth, our solar system, even our galaxy — is so insignificant as to be incomprehensible when described on this scale. Go out on some clear night and look at your pinky nail held out to the sky at arm’s length in any direction. That region of sky, that sliver of nothing, contains on the order of 1,000,000,000,000,000 suns. Our little primate minds can’t possibly comprehend a number like that, let alone what it means in relation to us. And yet, somehow, human beings have the reasoning power and have developed the technology to discover this fact, even if we can’t get our heads around it. The only known planet with life has produced a unique species capable of discovering how small and insignificant it really is. Humans have realized that we are simultaneously an incredible wonder, a unique novelty and a vanishingly small speck in a prodigious universe we’ll never really comprehend.

Image: NASA

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