Hubble photo: the most distant object ever seen

Launched into orbit nearly 21 years ago, the Hubble Space Telescope is still peering deeper into the cosmos than ever before. But after the Hubble is retired, what's next?

It certainly doesn't stand out from its celestial surroundings, and even after it's been pointed out you, this little red smudge doesn't make very a strong impression. But this unnamed galaxy--or rather, proto-galaxy--is the most distant, and quite possibly oldest, object ever glimpsed by humankind.

Click here for a much, much larger version of this photo.

The tiny galaxy is made up of a small collection of "blue stars," named for the color of the light they emit. (The light appears red due to the constant expansion of the universe, which stretches the wavelengths of the galaxy's light.) Even its traits that aren't strictly superlative are amazing:

  • It's roughly 13.2 billion light-years away, meaning that it took 13.2 billion years for the galaxy's light to reach the lens of the Hubble. (For reference, the entire Universe is estimated to be 13.7 billion years old; the Sun, 4.6)
  • Its stars, which haven't existed for many billions of years, were active about 150 million before the next oldest object ever photographed
  • It's less than 1% as large as the Milky Way, which makes it, according to NASA, "500 million times fainter than the faintest stars seen by the human eye"

The circumstances of its capture are remarkable, too: The photo was taken using the Wide Field Camera 3, which was installed during the Hubble's latest and final maintenance mission in 2009, and took 111 orbits and eight days of observation to get these exposures.

The Hubble, though, is nearing the end of its operational life, and there is no other telescope in orbit capable of doing what this venerable old satellite has been doing for decades.

Well, not yet.

In a few years, NASA hopes to launch the successor to the Hubble, the James Webb Space Telescope. While its role will be similar to the Hubble's, it will carrying it out from an entirely different vantage. Rather than orbiting around the Earth, the JWST will orbit the Sun. The dueling gravitational forces of Earth and the Sun will keep the telescope in relatively close proximity to Earth, where it will follow its home planet in its yearly orbit.

Its hardware will be markedly different from its predecessors, too. Its main mirror will be over six times larger than the Hubble's, and its computer and imaging software will be much, much newer. According to Popular Science, the satellite is specifically designed to observe extremely distant and old objects, and will be able to photograph objects like the one above "much more clearly" than the Hubble. (Ensuring that the JWST's onboard gear is as powerful as possible is especially important because, unlike the Hubble, this satellite will live too far from Earth to be serviced directly.)

So far, the JWST has been spared from the cuts and reconfigurations that've plagued many recent NASA programs, and if everything go according to plan the telescope should launch in 2014. Then, the Hubble is expected to be retired for good.

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