The Astounding Truth About the Hubble Space Telescope's Most Famous Image
The Hubble Space Telescope is humanity's portal to the universe. For more than twenty-five years its gaze has darted across the sky, returning images beyond our wildest dreams, sights of unimaginable beauty, radiant majesty, and awesome stellar violence.
One of Hubble's most iconic images is famous for transcending stars, planets, and nebulae, for peering beyond our galaxy to view space on a truly cosmic scale. That image -- seen above -- is the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field. The specks of color and light you see are not stars; they are galaxies -- 10,000 of them in fact! It is the deepest image of the sky over obtained, gazing back approximately 13 billion years.
Yet the immense scope of the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field conceals an astounding truth. As all-encompassing and far-reaching as the image seems, it is much, much closer to nothing than it is to everything.
"The image is only one-forty millionth of the sky. In other words, it would take 40 million Hubble Ultra-Deep Fields to cover the entire sky," Dr. Edward J. Weiler, former Chief Scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope, recently revealed in a presentation at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. "If you wanted a human analogy, go out on a clear night, get a standard sewing needle, hold it up at arms’ length and look at the hole in the sewing needle. That’s the size of the sky you’re seeing portrayed here."
"If this makes you feel small, it should. We humans, after all, have only been around for about 100,000 years on a planet that’s been here for four billion years or so. We live on a small rock called the Earth, which orbits a routine star called the Sun. And the sun is one of hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy. And, sorry, our galaxy isn’t really that special. It’s just one of hundreds of billions of galaxies. But before you get too depressed, on the positive side, we mere humans, just in the past 30 years, have built space observatories which enabled our minds and our spirits to travel any place in this vast universe and experience some of the most violent phenomena imaginable, places our physical bodies can never go."
(Image: NASA, ESA, H. Teplitz and M. Rafelski (IPAC/Caltech), A. Koekemoer (STScI), R. Windhorst (Arizona State University), and Z. Levay (STScI))