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27Jan 2011

Lots of ink for an old telescope reaching its limit & galaxy fuzz ball

Looks like NASA has found a relay torch. The refurbished Hubble Space Telescope won't get any more furbishing. It will poop out in a few years. Taking over, budgets and a well-behaved rocket permitting, will be the James Webb Space Telescope. If there's a baton to be metaphorically passed, a good one to choose is UDFj-39546284.

In Nature today, backed by a live internet news conference and press releases listed down there in Grist, a team led by California astronomers (one recently moved to Holland's Leiden Observatory) reports that a teeny, faint, fuzzy, and barely resolved speckette of scruff by that name, lifted from the sky noise in the famed Hubble Deep Field sector of distant cosmos, is a galaxy seen as it was 13.2 billion years ago. It is bursting with big, hot, new stars, they believe, but the Hubble can't get enough spectrum to be deeply sure. It existed near the close of the so-called Dark Ages, after the big bang had faded and during which, for most of that era, few or no stars existed. A murk of atomic particles suffused all, a sort of fog. Then, as galaxies and their first generation of giant stars revved up, the fog burned away (re-ionized that is) and from the void, blah blah blah and here we are. That's the story anyway. So this thing marks about the time the lights came back on, and it seems to have been a bit earlier than theorists had supposed, when our 13.7 billion year old universe was merely about 480 million. This specific galaxy seems a good candidate as a high priority target for the late Mr. Webb's eponymic legacy.

It's also about as much as Hubble can do in this arena of cosmology. The Webb, somewhat cut down in size and alas bloating in cost, will have a bigger light bucket to capture that time's emanations. It will be more sensitive at the longer wavelengths, IR and such, where they are most visible to us. It will be dandy for nearer things too, like planets forming around other stars right here in the Milky Way. But across the edge of the today's visible noosphere  JWST will stride right past where Hubble is staggering and dropping to its knees.

That's how I see it. Stories tend to stick to the facts of this discovery - but also tend to include nods to the nifty Webb Cam on the way (NASA and its contractors are bolting it together in the Building 29 cleanroom ,which has two web cams, at Goddard Spaceflight Center, Maryland.)

  • NYTimes - Dennis Overbye: In Hubble's Lens, Signs of a Galaxy Older and Farther Than Any Other; Overbye goes with a different metaphor for this event, with the Hubble leapfrogging into the past and the distance. True. But it's running out of frogs.
  • Reuters - Maggie Fox: Telescope spots oldest galaxy ever seen ; Hmm. Oldest galaxy ever seen is probably some nearby elliptical one. Headline writers have a chore on defining oldest in such a story. It's seen as an infant. It probably never got particularly old before being merged into nonexistence, consumed by a larger one. The light is old, but if we find the very first email message ever sent is it from the oldest known email writer?
  • AP - Seth Borenstein: Astronomers claim earliest galaxy yet from Hubble ; No quibbles with that hed.  Borenstein gets in a little bit of inside squabbling among astronomers over whose early-old-whatever galaxy is best documented.
  • Time Mag - Jeffrey Kluger: Hubble Finds Granddaddy of Ancient Galaxies ; That hed's a good stab at it. But this blog raises another conundrum of our expanding, relativity-shaped universe. He says somewhere in the void 13.2 billion light years away is a "magnificent red blob." It looks red to us. But to itself, back when and back there with no cosmic expansion stretching out the light, anybody looking at it would see it throbbing with brilliant, hot, blue stars. As for magnificent, it was busy, but a small thing compared to today's galaxies. Kluger does bring up some matters deeper in. Plus, he erodes my own theme up top, writing that Hubble should get a lot more work of this sort done obefore it punches out.
  • Science News - Ron Cowen: A galaxy far, far, far away ; Oh boy, another case of common language confronting crazy relativity (I studied it, never really got it). Cowen is good at this stuff, but I wonder about his saying this thing is estimated to lie 13.2 billion light-years from Earth. Present tense. Maybe that's how far away it was when the light came our way, but we and it were retreating fast from one another then, slowed down for a while, and noware speeding up again. Today it does not exist, but the place where it did exist is.... anybody know how far away it'd be now? The redshift is about 10. Is it, with the cosmological constant, now going faster or slower than then? Gad. Cowen also implies an important point that, statistically, this doesn't come close to the two-sigma rule of significance. He reports there is about a 20 percent chance the blob isn't nearly as red-shifted as the authors think most likely. His piece is a good lesson in how to write with the word "contingent" in mind.
  • AAAS ScienceNOW - Govert Schilling: Distant Galaxy is Record Breaker ;
  • Nature News - Adam Mann: Oldest galaxy is lone ranger ; Sharp opening angle in this one - it supposes that this galaxy, hard as it was to find, means there were not many others back then and therefore that the "fledgling Universe was emptier than was previously imagined." Some other accounts have sources saying they expect to find a lot more, with Webb or maybe some with the HST. Mann's sources, authors of the paper, and several other media reports that point up that this galaxy seems to have been on the leading (and lonely) edge of star formation makes this angle credible.
  • San Francisco Chronicle - David Perlman: Hubble telescope spots farthest galaxy yet ; Dave does a fine job describing just why this observation strained the ability of even this spiffed up latest iteration of the Hubble with its new hardware and programming, including 87 hours of difficult exposures during a two-year campaign to nearly nail this thing's identity sort of down.
  • Houston Chronicle - Eric Berger: A galaxy far, far, far away: Nice job of outlining main findings. One quibble. It says Hubble can't resolve the objects individual stars. True. It also says that task will fall to the Webb telescope. I would be amazed if even it could see little dots in it, each one a star. Nebulae and morphology and maybe jets and stuff, but stars?
  • Wired Science - Lisa Grossman: Hubble Finds Galaxy Beyond Key Benchmark ; Other than a minor but distressing flub in misspelling her prime source's name on first ref, a good and serious stab at presenting the findings' significance the way astronomers see it. Also, a fine illus (hi def here) showing astronomy's historic march farther, and longer ago.
  • Daily Mail (UK) David Derbyshire : Scientists discover oldest galaxy - that is so far away it takes its light 13.2 BILLION YEARS to reach Earth; It is good to see tabloids covering purely intellectual news such as this, and with such enthusiasm. Plus, in usual fashion for this pub with its aversion to ambiguity, there is not even a hint of the discovery's penumbra of uncertainty - instead one reads a series of emphatic declarative sentences that tell the reader that what others say is probable is actually certain.
  • BBC - Pallab Ghosh: Hubble telescope detects the oldest known galaxy ;
  • Sydney Morning Herald - Deborah Smith: Hubble brings back baby photos of the universe ; Isn't that a fine headline?
  • Irish Times - Dick Ahlstrom: Astronomers discover earliest galaxy yet found ; Hmm. Could've stopped after the hed's 'yet'.
  • USA Today - Dan Vergano: Hubble spots most ancient galaxy to date ;
  • Washington Post - Brian Vastag: Has Hubble found a galaxy far, far away? ; The question mark is a good touch for the hed, as Vastag writes this in a spirit of hopeful maybe, with an energetic description of the underlying spirit of this science.
  • Deseret News - Joe Bauman : The Farthest Galaxy Yet - But Where Are Its Siblings? ; a blog by a former staffer.
  • ... there are more....

Grist for the Mill:

NASA Goddard Press Release ; Carnegie Institution Press Release ; UC Santa Cruz Press Release ;

- Charlie Petit

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