The Hubble Space Telescope has peered back to a chaotic time 13. 2 billion years ago when never-before-seen galaxies were tiny, bright blue and full of stars bursting to life all over the place.
Thanks to some complex physics tricks, NASA's aging telescope is starting to see the universe at its infancy in living color and detail.
Images released by NASA on Tuesday show galaxies that are 20 times fainter than those pictured before. They are from a new campaign to have the 23-year-old Hubble gaze much earlier and farther than it was designed to see.
"I like to call it cosmic dawn," Hubble astronomer Jennifer Lotz said at the American Astronomical Society convention in Washington. "It's when the lights are coming on."
It was a time when star formation was ramping up.
"Imagine if you went back 500 million years after the big bang and looked around in the sky," astronomer Garth Illingworth of the University of California at Santa Cruz said. "Galaxies are closer. They're smaller. They're bright blue and they're everywhere."
Because light travels nearly 6 trillion miles a year, as telescopes look farther from Earth they see earlier into the past. This is the first complete set of photos in the visible light spectrum that the human eye sees.
To do this, Hubble is using one of Albert Einstein's concepts that massive clusters of galaxies have such super gravity that they magnify and stretch light, Lotz said. By focusing on clusters, astronomers use them as natural binoculars to see what's behind them.
Christopher Conselice, a professor at the University of Nottingham in England, said the photos will "tell us about how the universe is forming and evolving."