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Tuesday, June 06, 2006

T.O.P. Ten: Number 1

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field Photograph

"This picture is the reason the Hubble Space Telescope was built. It has been compared in significance to the Dead Sea Scrolls and the discovery of the structure of DNA. It is the deepest and farthest back in time that humans have ever been able to see, almost back to the beginning of time."
-----------------—University of Texas Astronomer Andy Howell,
-------------- - - --about the original 1995 Deep Field Photograph

This is not the prettiest picture ever made, but it is certainly one of the most amazing. It is a picture of a tiny, nondescript patch of sky with "nothing in it," in the constellation Fornax, below Orion. To put its angle of view in perspective, science writer Chet Raymo explains, take two pins or sewing needles and, at arm's length, cross them. The small square where the two pins overlap is approximately the visual area represented by the Hubble Ultra Deep Field photograph.

So why is this a great photograph? Well, for one thing, it shows something that is only visible to human beings through photography. It is a million-second exposure created from two separate images, each made with hundreds of exposures, taken by Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS), installed in the 2002 servicing mission, and the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-object Spectrometer (NICMOS), which sees even farther than the ACS.

It uses the world's most expensive lens.

The world's most expensive lens: the Hubble Space Telescope

It is the ultimate in difficulty of access; unlike most photographs, it is not something that was ever witnessed directly by a human being. It essentially exists for us only as a photograph. Certainly, none of us will ever visit the place from which it was made.

The picture contains some 10,000 galaxies, and shows us as far back in time as we have ever seen: a redshift of approximately 7–12 (about 400–800 million years) from the Big Bang.
Each of these galaxies, of course, comprises millions of individual stars. The objects it shows are between 2.5 and 10.5 billion light years away. To put us in context—an absurd concept, since that simply can't be done—consider that Voyager 1 has been traveling at approximately 55,000 miles per hour since 1977 and just recently left the earth's solar system. Assuming it could keep going that long, it would require another 400,000+ years before reaching a second solar system. Just try to extrapolate that kind of scope and scale out to encompass 10,000 galaxies in a patch of sky that can be covered by two crossed needles held at arm's length. The human imagination is far too paltry a thing.

William A. Anders, Earthrise, Apollo 8 mission, Christmas Eve 1968

There are other photographs from space that perhaps move us emotionally to a greater degree; the sentimental favorite is no doubt one of the many "Earthrise" photographs taken from the orbit of, or the surface of, the moon. No wonder, as it shows a portrait of our own little neighborhood: Earth, our only home, almost unbearably lovely. Personally, I consider it a great privilege and great good luck to have lived in an era when I could see such a picture.

But for pure awe, it is dwarfed by the magnificent HUDF. No single tool in human history has revealed as much to us about the Universe as the Hubble Space Telescope. It is the ultimate camera, and its masterpiece—so far—our ultimate photograph.

Hubble Deep Field multi-variate display at the Advanced Supercomputing Project at NASA Ames, 1995

Previous Posts in The Online Photographer's Top Ten Greatest Photographs Ever Made:

10. The Equivalent
9. The Image of Woman
8. Self and Other
7. Witness
6. Significance
5. The Land
4. Access
3. The Portrait
2. The Concerned Photographer

COMING SOON: The Top Ten Best-Built Cameras of All Time



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice selection. In that veign, I offer an honorable mention: Pale Blue Dot.
It's a photo of the earth taken by Voyager 1 as it left our solar system.

6:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

..."I've seen things people wouldn't believe"......

"Blade Runner".

6:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good choice, Mike! We are very small, indeed.

8:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bravo...since the moment I saw that picture a few years ago it has awe-struck me. Imagine, in a tiny speck of space there exists untold do we comprehend...what a challenge. That and the picture of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) which proved a forgotten/unprovable math theory.


8:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And the area covered by the photo is essentially 'empty space'! 10000 galaxies, each with millions of stars, with a large percentage having planets. The same area as covered by the photo can fit billions of times in the sphere of sky that surrounds us, each time with tens of thousands of galaxies. Even if 1 in 1 billion planets develops life, it means that we are not alone, thousands of times over.
Maybe the leaders of our religions and countries should be reminded of this more often, and our personal differences might start to seem pretty darn small and petty.

9:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


11:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As the late Carl Sagan was fond of crowing, "Billions and billions of stars." Imponderable vastness and richness of variety, all as frustratingly out of our reach as a London sugar cube is to a New Mexico ant.

Someone out there some place in that vastness must certainly have that damn 25mm f/2.0 lens that Mike seems to lust for!

2:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just one correction Mike: Each galaxy contains billions of stars, not mere millions!

It has been said, based on realistic estimates, that there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on all the beaches on Earth - truly mind-blowing!

3:45 AM  

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