Has Hubble found a galaxy far, far away?
Thursday, January 27, 2011
Hubble's still got it.
The aging beauty of a space telescope has glimpsed a presumed galaxy that astronomers say might just be the oldest thing ever seen, a small, hot affair that blazed to life during the childhood of the cosmos.
Age of Hubble: Almost 21.
Age of the possible galaxy: 13 billion years, give or take.
Although NASA's Hubble has offered a generation's worth of spectacular images - sparkling galaxies, billowing nebulae, stunning star clusters - its latest quarry lacks charisma. The presumed oldest galaxy is but a faint smudge on Hubble's Ultra Deep Field image, the astronomical equivalent of a days-long staring contest.
In 2009, Hubble's operators turned the telescope toward a dark pocket in the southern sky and "bored a hole," in the words of one Hubble enthusiast, funneling a trickle of light thrown off by the most ancient stuff we've ever seen.
The Ultra Deep Field displays a roiling zoo of galaxies - thin ones, fat ones, cigars, pinwheels, discs and clouds. But the oldest galaxy is nothing but a smear.
Still, this "candidate" galaxy - so called because it could turn out to be something much less exciting - marks the latest entry in a quickening deep-space race among astronomers to bag and tag ever-older objects.
Hubble's new wide field camera 3, installed during a tense 2009 spacewalk, has sparked the race, peering into the heavens with 40 times the sensitivity of its predecessor.
"The idea that you can detect something from the beginning of cosmic time by looking at a patch of sky for 87 hours is just wild," said Rychard Bouwens, an astronomer from Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands who led the team that made the discovery.
As for the impossible-sounding age of the possible galaxy, Bouwens added, "I'm kind of wowed by it myself."
Or, as Daniel Fabricant, an astronomer at Harvard University put it: "If true, the discovery would be a very big deal."