Baltimore The deepest-ever view of the universe, a photo by the Hubble Space Telescope that looks back to the edge of the big bang, shows a chaotic scramble of odd galaxies smashing into one another and re-forming in bizarre shapes.
The snapshot of the universe, called the Ultra Deep Field, captured light that had streaked through space for more than 13 billion years, starting its journey when the universe was only 5 percent of its 13.7-billion-year age. The view has about 10,000 galaxies, some mixed in chaos that one astronomer said "looked like a train wreck."
Capturing such faint and distant light, officials at the Space Telescope Science Institute said Tuesday, was like photographing a firefly hovering above the moon.
"For the first time we're looking back at stars that are forming out of the depths of the big bang," said Steven V. W. Beckwith, director of the institute. "We're seeing the youngest stars within a stone's throw of the beginning of the universe."
Hubble's images were collected by focusing its instruments at a single point in the southern sky for 1 million seconds, an exposure that took more than 400 orbits of the space telescope.
The portion in the sky photographed by two Hubble instruments is very small. Astronomers compared the field of view it to looking at the sky through an 8-foot-long soda straw. They said capturing the images was akin to reading the mint date on a 25-cent coin from a mile away.
What the view lacks in width, however, it makes up for in depth. Beckwith said that never before had a telescope captured such detail from such a distance. "These images will be in astronomy textbooks for years," he said.
Many of the photographed galaxies lack the stately grace and order of spirals, such as the Milky Way, or of the huge elliptical galaxies seen in the nearby universe.
Some of the galaxies in the Ultra Deep Field appear to be colliding, with gravitational forces mashing them into unusual shapes. Some resemble toothpicks and others are like a string of faint lights. There also are faint points of vivid red, which may be the most distant and ancient of the galaxies.