Hubble to Look Deeper into the Cosmos

A new survey by the space telescope will observe six more locations in an effort to replicate the famous eXtreme Deep Field photo.

The Hubble Space Telescope's iconic "Deep Field" photo wowed the world in 1996 by revealing a huge collection of galaxies hiding inside a patch of the sky that looked like nothing more than blank space. Now NASA plans to image six more "empty" bits of sky for a whole new set of deep fields that could revolutionize astronomy once again.

Hubble captured the Deep Field by staring at the same point over many hours, letting photons of light from extremely distant objects slowly pile up to reveal celestial bodies that would otherwise be too faint to see.

Since the original photo's release, Hubble looked even longer at the same spot to create the "Ultra Deep Field" in 2004 and then the "eXtreme Deep Field" in 2012. But the new effort, called Hubble Frontier Fields, will be the first to try a similar technique on some new areas of the heavens. These photos won't go quite as deep as the Ultra Deep Field, but will represent some of the deepest images of the universe ever taken.

"As iconic as the Ultra Deep Field is, now we'll have six that are almost as nice," said Hubble scientist Dan Coe of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md., which manages the telescope.

The Hubble Frontier Fields will collect light for about 45 hours each, spread over a period of three years, imaging objects that existed in the first 500 million years after the Big Bang.

Plus, in a new twist, astronomers will image each of the six blank patches of sky in combination with nearby galaxy clusters, whose gravity can act as a cosmic magnifying lens to zoom in on small, distant objects behind them.

Researchers will "observe six galaxy clusters and blank fields in parallel," Coe told SPACE.com. "While they're observing a cluster, the other camera is just far enough away where it's not really looking at the cluster anymore. It'll be essentially blank. To really go deep in both of these at the same time, that's never been done before."

The added magnification boost of the clusters' gravity should make these pictures the deepest glimpses of the universe yet. The shots could capture galaxies that are older and farther away than anything ever seen before.

"Some of them will be among the most distant galaxies yet found," said Coe, who led the study of one of the current contenders for farthest galaxy ever seen, MACS0647-JD, which lies about 13.3 billion light-years away.

The original Deep Field photo revealed about 3,000 previously unknown galaxies in a patch of sky only 2.5 arc-minutes across, or about one 24-millionth of the whole sky.

The new fields will determine whether that huge haul was a fluke, or if almost any patch of blank sky contains a similar wealth of treasures."You don't know, it might be a special part of the sky you're looking at," Coe said.

Hubble will begin observing the first of the new fields later this year.

The nearly 23-year-old telescope is still going strong after five upgrades from visiting space shuttle crews. NASA hopes to keep the observatory running until at least 2018, when its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is due to launch.

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The Hubble Space Telescope's eXtreme Deep Field (XDF) was assembled by combining 10 years of Hubble photographs taken of a patch of sky at the center of the original Hubble Ultra Deep Field. The XDF is a small fraction of the diameter of the full moon.

The Millionth Object is... an Exoplanet On Monday, July 4, the Hubble Space Telescope celebrated its latest milestone:

one million scientific observations

. Unfortunately, we can't "see" this landmark observation as a typically picturesque Hubble photograph as it was a spectroscopic analysis of a distant exoplanet's atmosphere. Analyzing the spectrum of light from worlds orbiting other stars is one component of Hubble's capabilities, but it's most famous observations recognized by fans of the space telescope are the amazingly detailed photographs of nebulae, galaxies, stellar phenomena and cosmic explosions. After 21 years, and a million observations, Hubble has transformed our perspective of the Cosmos, so in celebration of this latest milestone, Discovery News will take you on a journey of some of Hubble's recent, most striking imagery.

Hubble's millionth observation is of the exoplanet HAT-P-7b (a.k.a. Kepler 2b), a gas giant larger than Jupiter orbiting a star 1,000 light-years from Earth. HAT-P-7b was originally discovered by ground-based observatories in 2008 and it has since been studied by NASA's Kepler space telescope. To complement these observations, Hubble has been used to analyze the exoplanet's spectrum so the chemicals present in its atmosphere can be identified. What is Hubble hoping to uncover?

Atmospheric Water "We are looking for the spectral signature of water vapor," said Drake Deming of the University of Maryland and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD. "This is an extremely precise observation and it will take months of analysis before we have an answer." "Hubble demonstrated it is ideally suited for characterizing the atmospheres of exoplanets, and we are excited to see what this latest targeted world will reveal."

21 Years Ago On April 24, 1990, shuttle Discovery launched with the 12 ton space telescope in its cargo bay, inserting it in a 559 kilometer (347 mile) around Earth. Last April, Hubble celebrated its 21st birthday.

"For 21 years Hubble has been the premier space science observatory, astounding us with deeply beautiful imagery and enabling ground-breaking science across a wide spectrum of astronomical disciplines," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "The fact that Hubble met this milestone while studying a faraway planet is a remarkable reminder of its strength and legacy." Bolden piloted the space shuttle during the 1991 Hubble mission (STS-31).

Servicing Missions Since its launch, Hubble has been visited five times by space shuttle crews. The first time, in 1993, was famous for the extensive work that had to be carried out on the telescope to correct its optics – particularly an out-of-shape mirror. After 10 days of spacewalks, the seven astronauts aboard shuttle Endeavour managed to give Hubble 20/20 vision. The following four service missions by Discovery (1997 and 1999), Columbia (2002) and Atlantis (2008) all served to upgrade the telescope, re-boost its orbit (to counter the effects of drag caused by Earth's tenuous atmosphere at that altitude) and fix failed equipment.

End of an Era? Now that the shuttle fleet is about to retire, Hubble no longer has an in-orbit support crew. It's by itself and some time within the next few years, the command will be sent to direct Hubble toward Earth to finish its dazzling career as a fireball as it reenters the Earth's atmosphere. Sadly, it appears Hubble's successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, will be canceled, so it's far from certain what shape the next "Hubble" will take. Special thanks to Ray Villard for assisting with the Hubble image selection!