In the words of Dave Bowman from 2001: A Space Odyssey: “My god, it’s full of stars…” © Omar Almaini, University of Nottingham.
It’s a weird fact of nature that the further away you look through space, the further back in time you see. Astronomers at The University of Nottingham have just released a jaw-dropping image of some of the furthest, oldest objects yet.
Using the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope in Hawaii, the team’s Ultra-Deep Survey has been watching the same patch of the sky – an area about four times the size of the full Moon – since 2005. The final image (check out the zoomable version here) represents over 1,000 hours of exposure time.
Due to the redshift of light as the universe expands, this image would have appeared inky black with an optical telescope. But look at the same spot again in the infrared and we see a kaleidoscopic swarm of distant galaxies – more than 250,000 of them.
For the most distant objects, this is a baby photo. “We see most of the galaxies in our image as they were billions of years before the Earth was formed,” says Professor Omar Almaini, who led the team. Many of the galaxies appear as they did only one billion years after The Big Bang, giving astronomers new insights into how galaxies formed in the early Universe.
“We still don’t understand why the most massive galaxies are usually elliptical in shape, while less massive galaxies tend to be disk-shaped with spiral arms,” says Dr David Maltby, a postdoctoral research fellow at The University of Nottingham. “By looking back in time to the early Universe we catch these galaxies in their infancy, and observe them as they change and evolve over many billions of years.”
Astronomers will be poring over data from the Ultra-Deep Survey for years to come, analysing the way galaxies are distributed throughout the Universe and searching for clues about the nature of dark matter.
For the rest of us, the aesthetic merits of an image like this are enough to make you marvel at the beauty that nature has to offer. It certainly makes for one heck of a desktop background.