National Geographic News
Frontier Fields Image of Galaxy Cluster Abell 2744

Galaxy cluster Abell 2744 is the deepest image ever made of any cluster galaxy.

Photograph by NASA, ESA, and J. Lotz, M. Mountain, A. Koekemoer, and the HFF Team (STScI)

Dan Vergano

National Geographic

Published January 7, 2014

Hubble Space Telescope astronomers Tuesday released views of the oldest galaxies yet seen, about 13.2 billion years old. They offer intriguing glimpses of the chaotic birth of the first stars.

The images are the first in a series called Frontier Fields.

Explaining the earliest stars would answer astronomers' questions about how galaxies such as our own Milky Way arose and how stars such as our sun came to reside within a galaxy.

The universe is about 13.7 billion years old. Since 1995, the Hubble Space Telescope has provided astronomers with glimpses of galaxies ever closer in age to the early days of the cosmos. Hubble started with a Deep Field image produced by focusing toward the Big Dipper for 43 hours, uncovering galaxies more than 12 billion years old.

Photo of a mountain range with earthquake lights.
Photograph by NASA, ESA, and J. Lotz, M. Mountain, A. Koekemoer, and the HFF Team (STScI)
A parallel field image of galaxy cluster Abell 2744.

The latest images, presented at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington, D.C., show galaxies some 500 million years more ancient than those once groundbreaking images.

First Frontier

At this early time, galaxies were "bright blue blobs, closer [together], smaller—and they're everywhere," says astronomer Garth Illingworth of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who presented a look at four surprisingly bright galaxies from this early era, seen by both Hubble and NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.

While these early galaxies weighed only about one percent as much as the Milky Way, they likely produced stars about 50 times more frequently than our galaxy does now.

"It's very important to understand how these earliest galaxies formed to understand our own galaxy today," says astronomer Eilat Glikman of Vermont's Middlebury College.

(See also: "Giant Black Holes Found at Dawn of the Early Universe.")

Gravitational Lens

As Einstein showed a century ago, gravity bends light. The Hubble First Frontier images rely on the gravity of a closer, tightly packed group of several hundred galaxies, called Abell 2744, to bend the light from more distant and ancient galaxies.

The bending effect focuses the light from the ancient galaxies, making them appear 10 to 20 times larger than they would otherwise appear. This gravitational lens allows Hubble to see the more distant ancient galaxies.

"There's an enormous amount of science that will come out of the Frontier Fields," says astronomer Michael West of the Maria Mitchell Observatory, who was not part of the discovery team. "Many astronomers are eagerly waiting to get their hands on the data!"

Unfortunately, the gravitational lens effect also distorts the ancient galaxies like a "fun house mirror," West says. "Imagine you could only see someone's distorted face in a circus fun house mirror and had to draw a picture of what that person really looks like without being able to see them directly."

Fortunately, astronomers can estimate the amount of distortion produced by the gravitational lensing and reconstruct an image of the distant galaxies and their properties.

For now, the picture painted by these images is one of an early universe where star production ramped up and galaxies grew larger and larger over the first four billion years of the universe.

When it comes to seeing early stars, Glikman says, "we have to be careful the tip of the iceberg really looks like the base of the iceberg." But these early galaxies "are really good indicators of what was going on early in the universe."

Follow Dan Vergano on Twitter.

37 comments
Antonio Di Lorenzo
Antonio Di Lorenzo

  •  La luce visibile annulla il tempo,ciò che si vede con un telescopio annulla o quasi il tempo,il tempo parte da zero con i primi fotoni che raggiungono un occhio,la visione in lontananza non è determinata dallo spazio tempo,perché allora se vediamo con gli infrarossi una galassia lontana ne percepiamo l'energia come se fosse vicina?Se vedessimo la stessa galassia nel futuro! Come si  potrebbe notare la differenza di una galassia nel passato?

Jørgen Balslev
Jørgen Balslev

Since Big Bang according to www.finaltheories.com took place in an existing universe, where the Big Bang was surrounded by old black holes, burnt out galaxies, and other celestial bodies, that acted as accumulation points for the creation of new stars and galaxies, the theory explains how the earliest stars and galaxies came to life, and how stars such as our sun came to reside within the galaxy.

Gabriele Menefee
Gabriele Menefee

I bet most of the galaxies furthest away are gone but some are still there.  It's certainly fascinating how the speed of light works.  It would be awesome if we could obtain the ability to travel at the speed of light or faster.  I don't know if it is something we could ever do though.  But if we could, imagine what we could explore.

Randi Oberman
Randi Oberman

I understand the concept of these pics but how is it that its back in time and not real time. I understand the light years and all that....but how can you see the past? I am sure some of those galaxies still exist. 

Kevin Nguyen
Kevin Nguyen


















































































kinda can't figure out what they are saying here









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Joshua Del Busto
Joshua Del Busto

Space is so fascinating. It is amazing to know that somewhere far out THIS is what space looks like. I probably won't be able to see space exploration (I'm 15.) but at least maybe my grand kids will. Hopefully one day we can find a planet similar to Earth. There has been many which resemble earth but have flaws like being too close to the sun, too far away, has an icy surface, and etc. I love watching things about space. It really draws my attention.

Barbara Addison
Barbara Addison

I could never understand how in the world the age of the universe can be figured out.

krishna p
krishna p

how real the universe appears if if we reconstruct it with our ''INNER'' eye lens!

Dave Harding
Dave Harding

Personally  think we are being fed a crock, not sure why but it probably has something to do with the God/creation thing.

We are told there is no center to the universe yet science can look at the edges of it and determine it's age. Logic then tells us that for this to be true then we must be the center of it otherwise opposite/different edges of the universe would be at unequal distances.

We are told the universe is expanding, that galaxies are receding from each other at constant velocities but somehow some galaxies have managed to collide and a collision is forecast in our future.


What pisses me off is that these people present hypothesese as fact when they have had only the tiniest peek.

Corey Schellenger
Corey Schellenger

How does the bending effect of the light make the ancient galaxies ten to twenty times bigger?

Zoë H.
Zoë H.

How do we know that the universe is 13.7 billion years old?

Andreas Maertens
Andreas Maertens

@Randi Oberman The Light travelled billion years to reach your eye. So the image you see has been billion years ago. That's why it's a view back in the past. Actually, everything you see is a view back in the past. But things on earth are so close, when you see them, they happened just billionth of seconds ago.

Todd Brown
Todd Brown

@Barbara AddisonLight from a single element is not uniform but a series of lines.  The bright orange of in a wood fire is Sodium.  That orange is at a specific wavelength.  Light in a vacuum moves at a constant speed, but like a train moving toward you the sound gets higher pitched or a train moving away from you the sound gets lower.  Same thing with light.  Something coming at you is bluer than something standing still and if it is moving away from you the light shifts to the red.  Since we know the wavelength of something like orange sodium when standing still if we look at the same line from sodium but moving away from us the line will have moved to the red.  The faster it is moving away the more red it will look.  There is a formula that says if something is moving x fast then it is y far away.  That formula was based off of a type of variable star that always pulses at the same rate of the same brightness.  You can time how fast it pulses and then by how dim it is you can figure out how far away it is.

Emmeline Cannan
Emmeline Cannan

@Dave Harding Of course they would collide... galaxies and things in the universe don't just sit still while space expands. They move around and are pulled about by gravitational forces. 

James H.
James H.

@Dave Harding Dave, you've misinterpreted, misunderstood or misconstrued many facts in your comment.

Todd Brown
Todd Brown

@Corey SchellengerSeem bigger, in this case just brighter.  The same way a magnifying glass bends and focuses light onto one spot, the astronomers are using a group of galaxies to bend the space so the light focuses around them to us.

Pons Asinorum
Pons Asinorum

Great question Zoë H, one I had as well. FWIW, here's what I found (my interpretation, errors are likely, so use at your own risk):

One way to estimate the age of the universe is to measure the mass, distance, and magnitude of stars. One can take those parameters and use the life-cycle of stars (which is based on physics and chemistry) to determine age. The oldest of these stars can be used to establish a minimum age (the oldest star found is called HD 140283 and is 14.5 billion years old +/- 0.8 billion years).

http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/hubble/science/hd140283.html

Another way is to calculate the rate of expansion that the universe is presently undergoing and extrapolate backwards. If the expansion is constant and keeping in mind that the composition of the universe (amount of  mass), the density of the universe (how that mass is distributed),  and the geometry of spacetime itself  (Einstein's General Law of Relativity)  greatly affect the rate of expansion, a range from 12 billion to 14 billion years old  is derived.

http://map.gsfc.nasa.gov/universe/uni_age.html

The most accurate measurement of the composition, density and rate of expansion came from a NASA satellite called WMAP, which determined these parameters as precisely as possible and gives us a universe that is  13.77 ± 0.059 billion years old.

The determination of the Age of the Universe is not a trivial matter, and has required enormous resources and brilliant minds -- and we still cannot, with 100% certainly, put the question to rest (the geometry of spacetime is assumed to be flat, but if it is not, then the WMAP age is incorrect).

Dave Harding
Dave Harding

@Todd Brown@Dave Harding@James H.Todd I understand only that you are rote repeating what Experts tell us are facts based on an interpretation of something they have observed. I am also aware that the earth was once flat and the center of the known universe until science realized it's mistake. Not much unlike the present day Big Bang which has morphed into the singularity.


The balloon analogy makes little sense to a lot of people in that it compares apples and oranges ; the universe has not been proven to be spherical and can only show movement on one plane. From personal observation I can see that the universe is all around me at all compass points, equal expansion away from each other in every direction ... incomprehensible without having other unknown dimensions that could only be guessed at.


I am not knocking you nor the science only the scientists who, in the known 14 billion year age of the universe have managed only a millisecond peek at it and yet make grand pronouncements of how it all came together.

Todd Brown
Todd Brown

@Dave Harding@James H.Think of the surface of a balloon.  It is finite yet unbounded, it has no edges.  Put two dots on the balloon.  Then blow up the balloon,  The dots are moving apart and the farther the dots started the quicker they separate.  Tell me which dot on the balloon is the center?  The surface of the balloon is in two dimensions, but it exists in three dimensions.  Our universe is three dimensional, but it exists with more dimensions than we can observe.  We can say these galaxies in the article are at the edge of the universe, but really at the edge of we can see.

The people presenting these theories are basing them on the evidence they have, if some piece of evidence comes along that goes against the hypothesis then a new theory will be presented to take into account all the observations.  You are free to doubt them, but without a hypothesis of your own that takes into account and explains all the data, you are just a crackpot if you say I do not understand therefor they are wrong.  God and creation are matters of faith, belief without proof.  Science is based on fact and observation, always looking for new evidence to support a theory, but welcoming any data that disproves a theory so that a better model of what is going on can be created.  Theories are based on evidence at hand, not the other way around.  You don't say God created the heavens and the earth and then look for proof.

Yes galaxies are moving apart, but in our local group the gravitational attraction of the Andromeda galaxy is greater than the expansion rate of the universe and some day the Milky Way will collide with Andromeda.  But we will never collide with any galaxy in any other cluster they are moving away faster than the pull of gravity to bring them back.

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