It Took 265,000 Galaxies and One Starry-Eyed Telescope to Create This Image

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A mosaic of the distant universe taken by Hubble.
The mosaic, comprising 7,500 images, spans space and time. NASA, ESA, G. Illingworth and D. Magee

If you spent as much time staring at the stars as the Hubble Space Telescope, you might start to see them as part of a cosmic family drama.

Stars are born. They grow up. They fade away. Sometimes, they get eaten.

All this, Hubble has seen with its unflinching eye from Earth's orbit, where it has kept vigil since 1990. From that lofty perch, pesky light pollution is banished, and there are no meddling clouds. Just a mechanical eye floating in space.

And Hubble beams all that drama, at a rate of about 150 gigabits per month, down to Earth, where scientists pore and puzzle over every pixel. Is that star heading toward a black hole buffet? Are those new moons for Pluto? Dark matter, wherefore art thou?

But every now and then, scientists put all those episodes together into a single blockbuster image that tells the grandest story of all.

Behold, the Hubble Legacy Field. NASA scientists are calling it the most comprehensive "history book" of galaxies ever. That's 265,000 galaxies spanning some 13.3 billion years, all in one jaw-dropping image.

Of course, not even the inestimable Hubble can bend space and time to take in so much of the heavenly history in a single frame. Instead, scientists took 16 years worth of stargazing — assembling a mosaic from 7,500 images of the distant universe.

"Now that we have gone wider than in previous surveys, we are harvesting many more distant galaxies in the largest such dataset ever produced by Hubble," Garth Illingworth, leader of the team that assembled the image notes in the NASA statement.

Putting the photo into perspective

The mosaic stitches together data from deep-field surveys, including the powerful Extreme Deep Field survey, to offer a revealing portrait of our expanding universe. While some galaxies here are still in their infancy, with planets just beginning to coalesce in their cosmic nursery, other galaxies date back to just 500 years after the Big Bang.

These are postcards not only from space, but also from the past.

"This one image contains the full history of the growth of galaxies in the universe, from their time as 'infants' to when they grew into fully fledged 'adults,'" Illingworth adds.

And while Hubble has certainly phoned home with some epic images in the past, this mosaic reins in about 30 times as many galaxies as any previous deep-field view, NASA notes in the statement.

The history book of galaxies as assembled by NASA scientists.
The portrait, a mosaic of nearly 7,500 exposures, covers almost the width of the full moon. NASA, ESA, and G. Illingworth and D. Magee

"We've put together this mosaic as a tool to be used by us and by other astronomers," Illingworth explains. "The expectation is that this survey will lead to an even more coherent, in-depth and greater understanding of the universe's evolution in the coming years."

In fact, it's unlikely Hubble will ever be able to outdo its own feat. NASA says the mosaic represents the height of the telescope's powers. Telescopes with even more powerful eyes will undoubtedly follow Hubble into space — and pry even more secrets from the universe.

But for now, the universe belongs to Hubble.