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Images reach into universe's infancy

BALTIMORE -- The deepest-ever view of the universe, a long-duration exposure by the Hubble Space Telescope that looks back to the edge of the big bang, shows a chaotic scramble of odd galaxies, smashing into one another and re-forming in bizarre shapes.

The snapshot of the universe, called the Ultra Deep Field, captured light that streaked through space for more than 13 billion years, starting its journey when the universe was only 5 percent of its current age of 13.7 billion years. The view shows about 10,000 galaxies, some mixed in a chaos that one astronomer said "looked like a train wreck."

Capturing such faint and distant light, officials at the Space Telescope Science Institute said yesterday, was like photographing a firefly hovering above the moon.

"For the first time we're looking back at stars that are forming out of the depths of the big bang," said Steven V. W. Beckwith, director of the institute. "We're seeing the youngest stars within a stone's throw of the beginning of the universe."

Hubble's images were collected by focusing its instruments at a single point in the sky for 1 million seconds, an exposure that took more than 400 orbits of the space telescope. The portion in the sky photographed by two Hubble instruments is very small. Astronomers compared the field of view to looking at the sky through an 8-foot-long soda straw. They said capturing the images is akin to reading the mint date on a quarter from a mile away.

What the view lacks in width, however, it makes up for in depth. Beckwith said that never before has a telescope captured such detail from such a distance. "These images will be in astronomy textbooks for years," he said.

Release of the Ultra Deep Field may be among the Hubble's last major contributions to astronomy. Maintaining the orbiting telescope requires periodic visits by space shuttle astronauts. NASA has announced that, in the aftermath of the Columbia accident in 2003, it is canceling future plans to service the Hubble. Beckwith said the Hubble batteries or gyroscopes eventually will fail and disable the observatory. He said it may be down to two gyros by the end of 2005, and if another fails after that, "We'll be out of business."

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