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How Big and How Old is the Universe?

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field (HUDF)

The 2004 Hubble Ultra Deep Field (HUDF): 10,000 galaxies, some as old as the beginning of time!



Although itís too early in our observational experience to give a percentage of the stars that have planets, that condition seems to be the rule rather than the exception. Most stars are probably also encircled by billons of small bodies like our asteroid and Kuiper belts that never coalesced into planets as its system evolved. And further out still is each starís own Oort cloud, a sphere of trillions of frozen objects left over from that systemís primordial past. By this point weíve come a few light years from the star and have reached the edge of itís gravitational and magnetic influence.

The distance light travels in a year is called a "light year," and is about six trillion miles.  This is the yardstick astronomers use for measuring large distances. Because other stars and galaxies are so far away, it takes time, and lots of it, for their light "pictures" to get here. So as we look out into the universe we are, by necessity, looking back in time. If, for example, the Sun exploded, we wouldnít know it for 8.3 minutes, because thatís how long it takes light to get to us from the Sun. We can say, therefore, that the Sun is 8.3 light minutes away. Since it takes light (the reflected light of the Sun) about five hours to get here from Pluto, Pluto is said to be five light hours away. The closest visible star other than our Sun, Alpha Centauri, is 4.4 light years distant.  That means that it takes 4.4 years for the light form the NEAREST star to get here. This in turn means that the nearest star (other than our Sun) is about 26 trillion miles away.

All the light that we see in the night sky that doesn't originate in our solar system is older still. The nearest galaxy to us, the Andromeda galaxy, is just under three million light years away. Thatís how old its picture is when we see a photograph of it. In fact, astronomers are now looking out so far into the universe (billions of light years) that they hope to see the universe begin, about 13.7 billion light years away and just that many years ago!

In order to see as far out in space (and therefore as far back in time) as possible, astronomers had to find an area of the sky with no bright stars in it, stars that would otherwise overexpose a very long time exposure. Having found such an area 1/10th the diameter of the Moon below the constellation Orion, they took a long exposure of it, magnified that, and then chose a tiny area in that photograph with the least number of bright stars. Then they put the Hubble telescope on that last area for almost 12 days straight during 400 orbits of the telescope around the earth.

The result was the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (HUDF) shown above and on page 228 of You and the Universe.  Taken in 2004, the HUDF holds over 10,000 of some of the oldest galaxies in the universe in an area of the sky that could be covered by a grain of sand held at arm's length. This million-second-long exposure reveals the first galaxies to emerge from the so-called "dark ages" shortly after the big bang, when the very first stars reheated the cold, dark universe. The bright, yellow-white object with diffraction spikes to the right of center may be a 20th magnitude star in our own galaxy, millions of times closer than the menagerie of far more distant background galaxies.

Nearly four billion times fainter than the limits of human vision, some of these galaxies may be 13 billion light years awayómeaning that their "picture" is 13 billion years old. Since the universe is thought to have begun about 13.7 billion years ago, these objects formed when the universe was very young. Although the HUDF only covers a very small part of the sky, this image is considered representative of the distribution of galaxies in space, because statistically, the universe looks the same in all directions. This, then, is a picture to the visible horizon of the universe, and back to the beginning of time.

This Universe: how big and how old? page and much of this 600-page website are excerpted from the personalized fine art book You and the Universe.


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Pages 2 and 3 from your Astrology Reading in the Fine Art Book You and the Universe







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The personalized Fine Art Book You and the Universe.










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