The fitting name of the NASA project which produced the most distant optical picture of the universe yet taken. It was unveiled on January 15th 1996, at the 187th meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

It was produced by the Hubble Space Telescope, showing at least 1500 galaxies at various stages in their evolution. None had been seen before.

The image was assembled from 342 separate exposures, taken from what is a keyhole view of the universe: an uncluttered area of the sky in the constellation Ursa Major ( also called the "Big Dipper", "Great Bear" or "Plough"). The HST was pointed at this same area of sky for 10 days (or roughly 150 orbits) in December 1995; the area was chosen not just because it offered a clear view but because it was possible for the HST to 'see' it constantly without the Earth, any other planets or the Sun getting in the way as the telescope orbited.

The field of view covered by the images is approximately 1/30th the diameter of the full moon as seen from Earth, or the width of a one-cent coin viewed from 75 feet away. This is such a narrow view virtually none of the foreground stars in the Milky Way are visible. Those that are are virtually crowded out by the light from distant galaxies, some of which are nearly four billion times fainter than humans are able to see.

In their press release (subtitled "One peek into a small part of the sky, one giant leap back in time..."), NASA stated that some portion of the galaxies seen in this view are so far away they probably date back to near the beginning of the universe; perhaps less than one billion years after The Big Bang. However it is worth noting that since the density of galaxies in the image is quite high, the very first galaxies have probably not yet been glimpsed. Indeed, the image is considered roughly representative of the distribution of galaxies in the universe, because the field is of roughly the same density in all directions.

The planned follow-up to this experiment was to use the infrared camera installed in the 1997 Servicing Mission to image the field still further to search for galaxies further away, whose light have been red shifted by the expansion of the universe. A further project, Hubble Deep Field South (HDF-S), photographed the southern sky near the South Celestial Pole in the same manner. The results of this project were released in 1998.

The Hubble Deep Field images have been called "the astronomical equivalent to the Dead Sea Scrolls", such is their value to the study of galaxy formation and the basic structure of the universe.


Sources:
  • Nemiroff, Robert/Bonnel, Jerry; "The Hubble Deep Field"; <http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap980607.html>
  • (Author unknown) "The Hubble Deep Field"; <http://www.seds.org/hst/HDFWF3.html>
  • (Author unknown) "The Hubble Deep Field Pictures"; <http://www.ast.cam.ac.uk/HST/press/hdf.html>
  • (Author unknown) "Hubble Deep Field"; <http://seds.lpl.arizona.edu/nodes/NODEv5n4-2.html>
  • (Author unknown) (Untitled) <http://oposite.stsci.edu/pubinfo/press-releases/96-01.txt>

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